When we entered the city of Armero, I wasn’t completely sure I knew what was going on.
The mood in our tour bus grew somber as our guide Nathalia, talked about the history of the area.
It was all in Spanish but I caught bits and bobs. I heard the words Volcano, Death and 20,000 people but I think I was subconsciously trying to avoid understanding because of the incredibly sad nature of the town’s history, its past.
And what happened?
Well, on the 13th of November in 1985, after 69 years of dormancy, volcano Nevado del Ruiz erupted. The surrounding icecaps melted and formed destructive mudflows which quickly made their way down to the unsuspecting town of Armero.
Despite receiving warnings of the volcano’s activity by local volcanic observation groups a few months before, the town of Armero was not evacuated.
Nathalia described the town as we drove towards it. There were acres of empty, dry land, where rocks, trees and the odd tombstone stood.
The story of this town is well known, not just within Colombia but around the world, thanks to journalists and cameramen who captured the horrific last moments when Armero was destroyed.
We slowly moved off the bus and over the rough dirt, under which bodies still remain.
We walked, wondering what the town used to look like, where the houses were, where the streets led. Now there was nothing but the memory of the more than 20,000 people who died in the town of just 30,000.
We hopped back on the bus and drove down the road to visit the memorial site for Omayra Sánchez, the young face of the tragedy.
Omayra was only 13-years-old when she was swept up by the landslide and trapped from the waist down.
She is a lasting memory, not just because of the horrible situation in which she died, but the grace and courage with which she endured her last moments. Her sweet perseverance stays with you when you hear her story, the sad and avoidable nature of her death even more so.
During her last hours, the girl became trapped with water rising around her neck.
For more than 60 hours, Omayra sat in the water, unable to move. Journalist Frank Fournier stayed with Omayra until her death. His photo of her has been seen around the world.
During her last moments she started to hallucinate, she talked about school, how she had a maths test to do. She also spoke of her mum who was in another town.
We visited the spot where Omayra died. A memorial stands covered in flowers, candles and plaques. Messages are left for the little girl, who is still praised for her bravery in the face of death.
Hair-ties in their hundreds are left for the little girl.
On the day we visited, a man was sitting by the tomb, selling candles for people to leave for the girl.
He also had a small TV and I saw the rest of our group crowding around it. It was a video of Omayra, in her final moments. A morbid reminder of the sad history of Armero. We watched, holding back tears, thinking of the girl and the innocence of youth which was taken from her in muddy waters.
A sad history but one to be remembered so tragedies like this don’t happen again.
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