'Like running into hell'

JARED MITCHELL November 25 1985

'Like running into hell'

JARED MITCHELL November 25 1985

'Like running into hell'


For the residents of Armero, a Colombian town of 21,000 nestled near the majestic Nevado del Ruiz volcano, there had been weeks of uneasiness. Before dawn last Thursday torrential rains began pounding the roofs of the town’s concrete-block buildings. But many inhabitants of the cotton and coffee centre were more concerned about the smouldering volcano 50 km away: the Nevado del Ruiz, after a 390-year slumber, had become active again. For two months the snow-topped mountain that towers above a scenic national park renowned for skiing and trout fishing had been spewing steam and ash. Experts from the Colombian capital of Bogotá, 170 km to the southeast, had drawn up contingency measures for evacuation of the area in case the three-mile-high volcano erupted. But no one predicted that the luckless residents of Armero were about to die in one of the worst volcanic disasters in history.

At about 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday Nevado del Ruiz exploded. Fire, ash and rocks blew more than five miles into the upper atmosphere. A wall of mud and debris broke away from the crater and began its deadly course down the slope, following the route of the Langunilla River toward Armero. Gathering force, it took only minutes to reach the town and the nearby villages of Santuario, Carmelo and Pindalito. In a flash the destructive surge, known as a lahar, buried streets and houses—and people—down the Langunilla Valley. By Saturday the Colombian government estimated the death toll at more than 22,000. Thousands more were injured, and others remained trapped or marooned by liquid mud. Then, the volcano erupted again and the government warned people living along five rivers in the region to leave their homes and seek refuge. Among the victims of the first eruption: 71 members of the Armero Red Cross who, in a tragic irony, were

at a planning meeting when the disaster struck. Said survivor Jorge Enrique: “It was like running into hell.”

In response to urgent appeals for help—the United Nations Disaster Relief agency issued a worldwide appeal for tents, blankets and cooking utensils—governments and international agencies began rushing emergency supplies to Colombia. In Ottawa, External Relations Minister Monique Vézina announced a cash donation of $60,000 through the UN agency and $100,000 worth of blankets, water containers and emergency medical supplies through the International Red Cross and the Pan American Health Organization. Vézina said Canada will also respond to an “urgent request” from the Colombian government for seismological and scientific equipment and technicians to monitor seismic activity associated with the volcanic eruption. The monitoring is designed to provide warning of any further eruption or related earthquakes.

In Geneva, where the League of Red Cross Societies launched an appeal for $4.7 million (U.S.) to help survivors of the Colombian tragedy, league spokesman George Reed reported the deaths of the 71 members of the Armero Red Cross while they were attending a local branch meeting. Only 11 members at the meeting escaped by scrambling to higher ground, Reed added, and they immediately formed an emergency rescue team.

In the first attempts to get aid to the stricken area, rescue teams advancing overland ran up against floods caused by the heavy rains swollen by the peak’s melted ice and snow, which gave the volcano its Spanish name— Snow Peak of Ruiz. Witnesses reported seeing bits of automobiles, houses and bodies—as many as 200 of them, many of them dismembered, floating downstream in water turned yellow from volcanic sulphur. One survivor, his arm torn off by the force of the ava-

lanche, trudged six kilometres carrying his son in search of help. Ambulance and rescue workers could not reach the area at first because the deluge swept away bridges and roads, including the principal highway from Manizales, the capital of Caldas province. Aircraft carrying rescuers were hampered by dark clouds that turned the tropical afternoon into night.

When they arrived they began the heartbreaking task of digging out the dead. “Some of the bodies had been under mud for six hours when we dug them out,” Red Cross rescue worker

Fer-nando Duque told Colombian radio from the stricken town. “We were not even able to tell if they were men or women; they were just a mass of grey.” Priests proclaimed the devastated area consecrated ground so that the devout living could leave the dead in their muddy graves and search for survivors. But the mud hampered rescue efforts. Three days after the eruption, about 500 survivors remained trapped outside of Armero in a lake of mud too soft for helicopters to land.

Even amid the horror and destruction, rescuers discovered miraculous escapes. Some residents scrambled up trees to avoid the advancing sea of mud, clinging to the topmost branches.

Others scrambled to rooftops only a few feet above the settling mud. Said Police Sgt. José Victor Otalvaro, who survived by climbing a tree after the local police station was swept away: “I think I am born again. People were running around in all directions, some of them without any clothes on, imploring the heavens.” Of Otalvaro’s 24 colleagues, only one other policeman survived.

One group fled to the local cemetery, where surrounding stone walls withstood the pressure of thousands of tons of mud and debris, diverting

the torrent around it. Armero’s hospital, which stands on high ground, escaped much of the destruction and was able to treat hundreds of injured who staggered in. Many of them were stripped naked by the force of the lahar, then cloaked in layers of mud and clay. Another resident, José Martinez, recounted how he fled from a truck when the lahar struck, sweeping him up along with the truck, which was carrying his wife and children. “I saw houses crumble,” he said. “Cars and electric pylons [were] carried away as if they were toys. I grabbed what I could and drifted for hours until the current eased.” Martinez then walked for 10 km with a broken arm to the

town of Guayabal, where he found his family, unharmed.

In human terms, the Nevado del Ruiz eruption was among recorded history’s worst such disasters—and one of the worst natural catastrophes ever to befall Latin America, including the twin earthquakes that claimed the lives of 7,000 Mexico City residents in September. Scientists said that Nevado del Ruiz represented the deadliest volcanic eruption anywhere since 1902, when Mount Pelée erupted on the Caribbean island of Martinique, killing 30,000 residents of the town of Saint-

Pierre under a boiling wave of dust, steam and gas. The most destructive volcanic blast ever recorded occurred on the Dutch East Indies island of Krakatoa, now part of Indonesia, in 1883, where a volcano exploded with the force of 30 hydrogen bombs, killing 36,380 people and wiping out 163 villages.

Last week residents of nearby Chinchina were spared the scale of destruction Armero suffered. Although its 70,000 residents reside only 10 km from the volcano, the death toll was limited to about 1,000. The community escaped major damage because it perches above the valleys and gulleys that carried the mud and debris ►

down the slopes of Nevado del Ruiz.

But the eruption spread dramatically far beyond the path of the mud avalanche. A dark cloud of volcanic ash stretched as far as the Venezuelan border 500 km northeast, shedding tons of dust over the Colombian countryside. And an Avianca jet returning to its base at Bogotá from Miami was forced to divert to the city of Cali, 25 minutes away, because of the eruption. Said pilot Fernando Cervera: “Smoke was reaching us at 26,000 feet. The cabin was filled with smoke, and I had to ask the passengers to use oxygen masks.”

Volcano specialists said that the mountain has been active since 1974, but added that they had not expected a major explosion. In fact, the volcano had not erupted with such force since 1595, when it was witnessed by awestruck Spanish explorers passing through the area. Until last week recent eruptions had been limited to steam and ash. In effect, said Darrell Herd, deputy chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Office of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Engineering, Nevado del Ruiz was “clearing out its throat” by spilling old ash. Herd likened the volcano’s behavior in recent weeks to that of Mount St. Helens, in Washington state, in the months prior to its eruption on May 18, 1981, a disaster that killed 60 people and devastated 150 square miles.

Even as Colombia’s President Belisario Betancur, who toured the region by helicopter, declared the region a disaster area, others asked searching questions about whether the human tragedy could have been averted. Survivor Ulises Molano Ramirez told reporters that government officials had assured them last week there was no immediate danger to local residents even after Nevado del Ruiz began to belch steam and ash on Wednesday. Ramirez ignored the assurance and fled with his family. Although they survived, Ramirez’s six brothers and their kin, who stayed behind, were all swept away in the avalanche. Other survivors complained that some local officials had even discouraged them from leaving when the first minor eruptions began.

Tragically, Colombian and American authorities had only just begun to develop strategies for the danger zone when Nevado del Ruiz exploded. Scientists had drawn hazard maps depicting possible lava flow routes. A network of seismic sensing stations dotted the peak to monitor movements inside the volcano. But experts declared that while they were aware of volcanic activity, it would have been difficult to predict last week’s tragedy. Explained Dr. Richard Hoblitt of the U.S. Geo-

logical Survey volcanic hazards prediction project: “Volcanology is still a young science.” Added France’s leading expert on volcanoes, Haroun Tazieff: “There were probably things to do, but a lot of experience was necessary to foresee this.”

At week’s end, an exhausted President Betancur said after touring the stricken region, “Colombians have not realized the true magnitude of the tragedy, and now we will have to face the numerous problems of health, orphans, widows and people left alone in this world.” But as aid began arriving

both from abroad and from within Colombia, Omar Meija, the head of civil defence in Chinchina, declared: “Colombia will lift itself up and will give a helping hand to the brothers of Tolima and Caldas [provinces]. We are capable of overcoming this tragedy.” But for the wretched survivors of the Armero disaster, the task of rebuilding their shattered lives seemed immense. Noted the Red Cross’s Duque: “Armero doesn’t exist any more.”