“Armero Has Disappeared From the Map!”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Colombia
THE people of Colombia were awakening to a new day. It was Thursday, November 14, 1985. I turned on the radio to get the morning news. I could hardly believe my ears as the announcer’s voice exclaimed: “Armero has disappeared from the map! . . . A portion of Chinchiná has been swept away in a mudslide!”
I listened in utter disbelief as the news report continued. Armero, a cotton- and rice-growing town of some 28,000 inhabitants, 55 miles (90 km) northwest of Bogotá, had been virtually wiped off the map by an avalanche of mud, ice, and lava. The number of dead and missing were estimated to be more than 21,000. Chinchiná, an important coffee-growing center on the other side of the mountains, had suffered to a lesser degree, with about 2,000 dead there. But what had happened to cause this total devastation?
Nevado del Ruiz Blows Its Top
The night before, at about nine o’clock, the 17,550 foot (5,400 m) snowcapped volcanic peak, Nevado del Ruiz, exploded on its northeast flank, spewing out huge quantities of sulfurous volcanic ash. Adding to this, the tremendous heat from the crater melted a large portion of the snowcap. As a consequence, normally crystal-clear, leisurely flowing, glacial streams were transformed into death-dealing torrents of mud and melting ice. A large part of this slithering mass slipped into the Lagunilla River, rolling and twisting downstream, sweeping along trees and boulders as it picked up speed along its 32-mile (52 km) descent to Armero.
Just over an hour later, a wall of mud, at least 40 feet (12 m) high (one report put it at over 90 feet), belched out of the narrow canyon onto the valley floor and spread like a deadly broom making a clean sweep. Armero, lying directly in its path, was swept away. Only a few houses on higher ground were left standing.
No Clear Warning
I spoke to several survivors who reported that on Wednesday afternoon the smell of sulfur in the air had been strong. At about four o’clock, ashes began to fall silently on the town. But this caused little alarm, since the volcano had been active in this way for nearly a year.
Jorge Castilla, from Bogotá but visiting Armero that Wednesday afternoon, told me that over the church public-address system someone urged the townspeople to remain calm, to stay indoors, and to cover their faces with damp handkerchiefs. According to church sources, this was a member of the Emergency Committee for Civil Defense. Those who attended early evening Mass were also assured that there was no reason for alarm.
At about seven-thirty, a torrential rain began to fall, then suddenly stopped, to be followed by a strange fallout—a fine, warm sand that soon covered roofs and streets. This was something new. More and more, people became uneasy. A few locked up their houses and fled to higher ground. The majority stayed.
Some time later, from high on the slopes, radiotelephone messages were sent down to Armero, warning that a tremendous explosion had occurred in the side of the volcano and that the town of Armero should be evacuated. At 10:13 p.m. the mayor of Armero, Ramón Antonio Rodríguez, suddenly interrupted a radio conversation with a Red Cross representative, exclaiming, “The water is here!” It had taken an hour and a quarter for the avalanche to travel 32 miles!
“The Volcano Is Coming!”
Survivors told me pretty much the same story. Some were awakened by the heavy rain of sand on the roof. Others heard the noise and shouting outside. Frantically, they called their children and family members out of bed. The lights suddenly went out. People were banging and kicking on doors as they shouted, “The Lagunilla is coming! Run! Run!” “The water is upon us!” “The volcano is coming!”
Thousands rushed out of their homes. Cars, motorcycles, and trucks raced madly through the streets, blowing their horns, heedless of people in their way. Many were run down before the wall of mud struck. It was total panic.
In the eerie darkness, the approaching avalanche made a terrifying noise. According to the visitor from Bogotá, Jorge Castilla, it sounded like two jumbo jetliners coming in low. The churning mass climbed over the riverbanks, rose higher than the houses, and swept straight down through the center of town. Houses, churches, stores, and other buildings were engulfed and swiftly carried away. Children were ripped from their parents’ arms and buried in the mud or carried helplessly away to their death.
“Now We Are Really Going to Die!”
Obdulia Arce Murillo, mother of nine and associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armero, was completely overwhelmed by the avalanche—yet lived to tell the story. She relates: “I fled into the street with my children and tried to climb up on a gasoline truck. Then the waters came. I threw myself to the ground. The water was coming awfully high . . . and it roared and roared. I shouted ‘Jehovah! Jehovah! Now we are really going to die! It’s the end!’ Then lots of poles and posts came rushing through in the water. One struck me on my left side, and that’s when I lost hold of my little daughter.
“I got all tangled up with a pole and some electric cables. Then one of my daughters, who had climbed up on some sacks of coffee, shouted, ‘Duck down!’ When I ducked, I felt as though a train were running over me. It was the mud. I could no longer see because I was buried under the mud. I was completely covered.
“I felt the force of the mud that was pulling me away. I tried to shout, and my mouth filled with mud. I was choking . . . I swam and strained until I at last got my face above the slime. With my hand, I pulled the mud out of my mouth with such force that I thought I had ripped my face open. I was sure I was going to drown, but at last I could breathe and shout. How relieved I was to get my face out of the mud!” But it was to be many hours yet before she was finally rescued.
Another Witness, Elena de Valdez, and her family made it to high ground behind the town. She reports: “We had just arrived at the foot of the hill when we heard cries and screams of people behind us, engulfed in the deluge. Shortly, others began to arrive, completely covered with mud. We could hear the terrifying noise that ‘thing’ made. It sounded horrible! And the cries of the people: ‘Help! Help! Save us! Don’t leave us to die!’”
Finally, it was all over. Only an eerie silence and inky blackness remained. Jorge Castilla, safe on a farm on the outskirts of Armero, said he could feel “an atmosphere of death in the night.” He added: “Survivors—old people, young people—were coming up out of the muck, many of them injured. They looked like zombies, as if walking in their sleep. They gazed at you with a blank stare. They asked for water, nothing more. It was horrible!”
Meanwhile, out in the deep, Obdulia Arce was still struggling to keep her head out of the mud. For her and thousands of other survivors, that will always be remembered as the longest night of their lives.
As morning dawned, a lone crop duster surveyed the lush, cultivated fields of the valley below. He could hardly believe his eyes. Close to the mountainside, where thriving Armero should have been, there was just an immense expanse of gray mud, with hundreds of bodies, animal and human, floating on the surface. He reported: “The town is just an enormous beach, with only a few houses still standing. People can be seen in treetops, on walls, and on the hillsides.”
On the edge of the disaster area, would-be rescuers saw survivors looking like mummies, covered with gray clinging mud, wandering about in a daze, searching for their loved ones. Children and old people were crying in despair, mothers screaming disconsolately, looking for their children. Others, just emerging from the muck, stood like statues, clad only in their underwear. Some had their nightwear torn completely off in the fury of the avalanche. Still others were less fortunate.
Living people could be seen out there, buried to the neck and crying for help, unable to move. Those on the edge of the morass were trying desperately to reach those nearby. Using planks, they succeeded in saving a few. Some ventured into the muck but then had to retreat as they began to be sucked down. A rescuer tried to drive a tractor in to help. Within three yards (3 m), the tractor was sucked under!
Obdulia Arce appreciated the warmth of the mud, for the night was cold. During the night, she kept slipping into sleep, only to wake up gasping for air when her face dropped in the mud. Morning came, but no one saw her.
“From the Least Expected Places, Arms Extend Upward”
Reaction countrywide was spontaneous and wholehearted. Institutions and individuals mobilized to help. The armed forces, civil-defense units, the police, and Red Cross rescue squads were rushed to the area. Thousands of volunteers—doctors, surgeons, paramedics, engineers, and other professional personnel—offered their services. Jehovah’s Witnesses sent in three vehicles with help and provisions from Bogotá.
Rescue teams were flown in from other countries. Soon some 30 helicopters, local and foreign, were combing the area in search of survivors. The rescue work had to be done almost exclusively from the air, since nearly every effort to maneuver on the thick mud ended in failure.
The sheer magnitude of the devastation slowed down the job of searching for the few living and digging out the many dead. After bringing in hundreds of survivors, rescue workers reported that there were still many out there waiting to be saved. As one rescuer said: “One thinks that there is no one down there, but as the helicopter approaches, from the least expected places, arms extend upward, a survivor beckons to be picked up.”
Among those waving to the helicopters every time they passed over was Obdulia, her head encrusted with dried mud. She could only wave feebly from the wrist, and all day she tried to get their attention. No one noticed her. She despaired of ever being seen. She prayed continually. She started another endless night of anguish, locked in the mud and with severe pain from her injured side.
When Friday morning dawned, she somehow mustered enough strength to shout and shout, until rescue workers combing the area finally spied her below. At 11 o’clock she cried out in sharp pain as she was pulled free and hoisted into a helicopter. She was whisked away to a first-aid center and then to a hospital. She had spent 35 hours suspended in that mud.
What had happened to her children? She later learned that two perished, but her other children were swept away to the edge of the morass, and they were eventually rescued.
Frustration and Joy
Under the hot tropical sun, the mud began to harden, and it required more and more time to extricate people. Pitiful cases were still seen—heads protruding above the surface, crying for help, or lips simply moving as an indication that a glimmer of life was still there. Some were pinned under fallen debris deep down in the thick muck. They had to be abandoned to die.
One such heartrending case was that of Omayra Sánchez, a 12-year-old schoolgirl, who gained the admiration of rescue workers and newsmen alike by her valor and optimistic conversation. She was pinned between the dead body of her aunt and a concrete slab. Rescuers struggled for some 60 hours to get her out. Finally, three days after the avalanche, she died of heart failure, still up to her neck in mud and water. The rescue team and the newsmen—in fact the whole nation—wept.
There was a happier outcome when the motionless naked body of four-year-old Guillermo Páez was sighted 60 hours after the tragedy. Scarcely discernible in the desolate gray expanse, he wasn’t dead, just asleep! The noise of the descending helicopter woke him up, and he sat up unsteadily. The helicopter dropped to within range, and he was lifted aboard. That was one event that brought joy to the hearts of the selfless rescuers.
Time and Unforeseen Occurrence
An estimated 21,000 people were lost in the tragedy in Armero, as well as some 2,000 more in Chinchiná. About 5,400 were rescued in Armero, of whom some 2,000 were treated in hospitals throughout the country. Many had their arms and legs badly mangled in the fury of the flood and had to suffer amputations because of the onset of gangrene. One of these persons was Epifania Campos, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, bank employee in Armero. Sadly, she died from the effects of gangrene.
Of the 59 persons associated with the Armero Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 40 who lived in the most seriously affected parts of the town have disappeared without a trace. Three persons associated with the Chinchiná Congregation lost their lives, and some 30 others lost their homes and belongings.
Six weeks after the tragedy, I visited the site again along with Gervasio Macea, who had lived for eight years in Armero. He could not identify with precision where the Kingdom Hall used to be—such was the total destruction. Where a town used to be, there is now a gray, wide, boulder-strewed beach in the shape of an enormous fan.
Obviously, Jehovah’s Witnesses are just as exposed to accidents and vagaries of the elements as is anyone else. In times like these, we can appreciate how the principle expressed in Ecclesiastes 9:11, 12 applies to all, without discrimination: “I returned to see under the sun that the swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle, . . . nor do even those having knowledge have the favor; because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all. For man also does not know his time. . . . So the sons of men themselves are being ensnared at a calamitous time, when it falls upon them suddenly.”
Yet, as the Bible clearly teaches, there will be a resurrection “of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” Christ Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that exercises faith in me, even though he dies, will come to life.” The Bible indicates that the time is near for God’s Kingdom rule and for the restoration of Paradise conditions on earth. Then the dead will return to an opportunity of real life, everlasting life.—Acts 24:15; John 5:28, 29; 11:25; 17:3.
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NEVADO DEL RUIZ
[Pictures on page 12]
The force of the avalanche destroyed the psychiatric hospital and wrapped girders around these remains
[Pictures on page 13]
A diploma lying in the mud on this street—tragic evidence of a shattered family
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Mud buried this tree to a height of 25 feet and wrapped one-inch iron bars around it. Armero’s commercial center in the distance lies desolate
Obdulia Arce Murillo survived 35 hours in the mud