Birthday: August 29, 1972
Died At Age: 13
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Omayra Sánchez Garzón
Born Country: Colombia
Born in: Armero
Famous as: Victim of Nevado del Ruiz Volcano
father: Álvaro Enrique Sanchez
mother: María Aleida Sanchez
siblings: Alvaro Enrique Sanchez
Died on: November 16, 1985
place of death: Armero, Armero
Omayra Sánchez Garzón was a Colombian girl who was one of the victims of the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. She grew up in an impoverished family in the neighbourhood of Santander, Armero. Following the eruption, volcanic debris melded with ice to create huge lahars that flowed down into the river valleys below the mountain. About 23,000 people subsequently died and 14 villages, including Armero, were completely decimated. After one of the lahars destroyed her home, Omayra was caught under the debris. For the ensuing three days, she was trapped in water and could not be moved despite several attempts by the relief workers. Media was present at the scene and documented her ordeal as her calmness gradually descended into agony. She died after struggling for sixty hours. Her death underscored the severe incompetence of her country’s disaster management cycle. In contrast, Omayra’s courage during her plight and the efforts of the relief workers were highly praised. A photograph of her, shot by photojournalist Frank Fournier in the hours prior to her death, earned Fournier the 1985 World Press Photo of the Year award.
Omayra was born on August 29, 1972, in Armero, Tolima, Colombia to Álvaro Enrique Sánchez and María Aleida Garzón. Her father was a rice and sorghum collector. She had a brother, who was named after her father. Her aunt, María Adela Garzón, also lived in their house in the Santander neighbourhood.
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The Armero Tragedy
On November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz stratovolcano erupted after being dormant for 69 years. The inhabitants of nearby towns had no idea that the volcano was close to eruption despite the repeated warnings that the Colombian government had received of volcanic activities in the region from multiple volcanological organizations. Pyroclastic flow burst out from the volcanic crater and liquefied the mountain’s glaciers. It formed four massive lahars (mudflows, landslides, and debris flows induced by volcanic activities) that rolled down the mountain slopes at 50 kilometres per hour. The lahars gained speed in gullies and channelled into six primary rivers at the base of the mountain. They soon made their way to the town of Armero and completely destroyed it. The overall death toll was later estimated to be about 23,000.
When the relief workers got to Armero, 12 hours after the eruption, they found a horrifying landscape filled with fallen trees, disfigured human and animal bodies, and a multitude of wreckages of houses and buildings. The fourth deadliest volcanic disaster since 1500 AD, the Armero tragedy received international attention. The Colombian government was heavily criticised for their lacklustre effort in disaster management, with many accusing that the government was responsible for the enormity of the tragedy.
Omayras Final Days, Death, & Legacy
At the time of the eruption, Omayra’s mother was not at their home, having gone to Bogotá on business. The night of the tragedy, Omayra and her family could not sleep, fearing the ashfall from the eruption. It was then that they recognized the sound of oncoming lahars. When it hit, it killed her father and aunt. Omayra was pinned under the concrete and debris of her house and could not manage to free herself. When the relief workers finally discovered her, they realised that her legs were trapped under the wreckage of the roof of their home. According to some sources, she was pinned to her waist, while others claim that her body up to her neck was under the wreckage.
In the initial hours after the mudflow hit, she was buried under the debris but eventually managed to get her hand out. When a relief worker caught the sight of it, he immediately came to her aid. He and others moved tiles and wood over the course of the day. After freeing her to the waist up, they unsuccessfully attempted to pull her out from under the wreckage. However, they came to realize that there was no way to get her out without breaking her legs in the process. Whenever someone tried to pull her out, water would gather around her and rise, making the relief workers fear that she would drown. Divers later found that her legs were pinned under a door made of bricks and the arms of her aunt were gripping her legs and feet.
Despite what Omayra was going through, she maintained a positive demeanour. She sang to relief workers, gave interviews, asked for sweet food, and drank soda. Sometimes, she became scared and prayed. Her hallucinations started on the third day. In her final hours, her eyes reddened, face swelled, and hands whitened. There was an attempt to save her by pumping out the water. The doctors considered the option of amputating her legs but didn’t have surgical equipment. They ultimately decided to let her die as it would be more humane. She passed away from exposure on 16 November at approximately 10:05 A.M.
In subsequent years, Omayra has become a symbol of courage and wisdom. She is a celebrated figure in poetry, literature, and music. Her brother survived the tragedy and was reunited with his mother. The Colombian government set up the National Office for Disaster Preparedness (now known as Directorate for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness) to prevent the repetition of such tragedies.