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News > Colombia

Armero: Tragedy in Colombia That Could Have Been Avoided

  • Omayra Sanchez was a girl who ended up trapped in the massive landslide caused by the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985.  Mar. 29, 2024.

    Omayra Sanchez was a girl who ended up trapped in the massive landslide caused by the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985. Mar. 29, 2024. | Photo: X/@culturefever

Published 29 March 2024

On November 13, 1985, at 4:00 pm, ash begins to fall and at 6:00 pm, fine viscous rain soaks the roofs and streets of Armero.

What really happened, why didn't the authorities in charge of monitoring the volcano issue an early warning about the danger? Why did it take so long for rescue teams to arrive to get the survivors out?

Andean Mountain Range, Backbone of Planet Earth

Survivors say that night they went to sleep as usual. Outside their homes, a thick layer of dust and sticky rain was falling. That day, in the morning, the sky turned gray, the intensity of the ashes and dust foreshadowed the tragedy, but those inhabitants, perhaps due to the lack of information, did not calculate the magnitude of the danger.

Before the Tragedy

At the beginning of 1984, a temperature increase began to be noticed in the volcano. Subsequently, since December 1984, farmers began to see fish dying in the Otún, Recio and Lagunillas river basins. In addition, not only were large amounts of sulfur visible, but there were small explosions that preceded a forest fire. On September 11, 1985, there was an eruption of gases, steam, and rain that fell on nearby municipalities, just two months before the Armero tragedy.

Many months after the tragedy, it was learned that the scientists in charge of monitoring the volcano's activity had done their work and had even passed reports to the highest political and administrative levels, both to the local and national authorities in Bogota. However, this was not taken into account, and there was even so much speculation about a false expectation of catastrophe that the politicians in charge of enforcing the specialists' warnings relaxed to such an extent that they forgot their importance. In June of the same year of the disaster, 1985, some specialists headed by Juan Duarte, a researcher assigned to the Geophysical Institute, received the order to recruit and organize a group of experts who would be in charge of monitoring the behavior of the volcano. They fulfilled the assignment, but with great economic limitations that forced them to use local companies and factories to obtain the instruments to place the monitoring and warning systems.

A major concern of the team of experts, once the installation of the devices was completed, was that there was no direct and rapid means of communication between them and the authorities of the Department of Toloma, where the municipality of Armero was located. This created a gap where, in the event of a catastrophe, it was impossible to warn them in advance so that they could begin coordinating evacuation efforts.

Mass Destruction and Deaths

Thus, on November 13, 1985, at 4:00 pm, ashes began to fall and at 6:00 pm, a fine viscous rain soaked the roofs and streets of Armero. Given the intensity of the phenomenon, the regional Red Cross proposed a possible evacuation of the towns of Armero, Mariquita and Honda. These communities were the closest to the volcano as they were located on the banks of the rivers that normally carry the water coming down from the glaciers of the Nevado del Ruiz.

While all this was happening, the media of the time gave very little importance to the activity of the volcano. Some bulletins were passed on the radio, but none warned of the prelude of destruction and death that was looming over Armero.

When the clocks struck 9:29 p.m., the Nevado del Ruiz exploded its destructive halo, and with it 2% of the ice crown came off. Immediately the ice begins to melt, and an avalanche is formed that detaches from the summit that drags and melts more ice as it moves down the volcano. This landslide subsequently causes the Lagunilla, Chinchiná, Gualí and Azufrado rivers to rise. The water is so strong that the rivers burst out of their beds, causing a second avalanche, now twice as deadly, carrying mud, rocks, trees and everything in its path. Anzoátegui, Fresno, Chinchiná, Palestina, Villamaría, Falan, Casabianca, Herveo, Líbano, Murillo, Villahermosa, Ambalema, Armero, Honda, Lérida, Mariquita, Cambao, Guarinocito, Guayabal, Santuario and Santa Isabel are affected by the mud that traveled approximately 44 kilometers with a speed that reached 80 kilometers per hour.

At 9:49 pm, frustration took over the Civil Defense officials who were in the towns of Ibagué and Murillo, where they had previously been notified from the vicinity of the volcano of the explosion. They insist repeatedly to contact the emergency system and authorities of Armero but in vain, it was never possible. Chinchiná was the first town hit at 10:45 pm and at 11:30 pm Armero, the most prosperous town of those regions, ceased to exist and 26 thousand people died. The tragedy left 20,611 victims and injured, many of them maimed and severely affected, psychologically devastated, and with incalculable economic losses.

Delayed Response to the Tragedy

In the early morning of November 14, they telephoned the Casa de Nariño, the seat of the executive in Bogotá, to inform the president of the country about the tragedy. They could not believe it, and even refused to inform the president without first corroborating it, while the callers were already seeing the tragedy with their own eyes. Some journalists tell today that without being sent by their agencies or media, they went to the place and that they were never prepared to see what was happening there.

Even late in the morning the rescue forces did not arrive, survivors and inhabitants of other regions were doing rescue work. Some, in their eagerness to pull out the injured alive, did not realize that far from saving them, they were doing more damage because the mud had melted the bodies and when they pressed to remove it, arms and legs were torn off. 

After 12 hours, the first media and specialized personnel arrived to begin the rescue and evacuation of the injured. The deadly avalanche that came down the rivers destroyed bridges, highways and roads, making it difficult to reach Armero. By that time, those who were able to survive had died of thirst, fatigue and heat.

The Colombian army joined the rescue efforts and used helicopters to transport supplies and food to the victims. The government was forced to declare an economic emergency and resorted to the help of international organizations and international solidarity. However, the relocation assistance programs never had the expected coverage or effectiveness, taking into account the millions of dollars in donations and budget allocations referred to above.

Tragedy Could Have Been Avoided

There was strong evidence of what could have happened and ended up happening. The government of the time, headed by Belisario Betancur Cuartas, avoided responsibility and even the tragedy helped him to solve one of the worst political crises of that time, the seizure of the Palace of Justice, which occurred the previous week by a guerrilla group. The media turned a blind eye to this event, which is why the disaster in Armero was so important.

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