Colombia’s largest volcano Nevado del Ruiz could be about to blow. We look back at a previous eruption that buried a town and 23,000 of its inhabitants.
“Aren’t you scared of the fantasmas?” a friend in Bogotá comments when I mention my plan to visit the ruined town of Armero. “Most people don’t even drive the road through the ruins after sunset.”
But I’m drawn to the aftermath of one the world’s worst natural disasters within living memory. And I know that Armero is under Colombia’s collective skin like no other national tragedy (and there’ve been a few), particularly with its nemesis Nevado del Ruiz ready to erupt.
The snow-capped volcano towers over the Magdalena Valley and floats over Bogota’s western horizon on a clear day (to see it you’ll have to get up early to Monserrate to beat the smog) and is always active, though its recent rumbling have triggered an orange alert and captured daily newsfeeds.
So it helps to look back.
My guide in Armero, is Victor, a local villager who cycles to the ruins every day and offers his services to visitors. He was in his mother’s belly when the mudslide struck, but she made it to higher ground and was one of the first winched to safety by helicopter. This is just as well, as Victor turns out to be an excellent guide.
Armero was Tolima state’s second-biggest town and the epicentre for booming rice and cotton farms, explains Victor when we meet at the small visitor centre and snack bar by the main road.
It was destroyed on November 13, 1985, when Nevado del Ruiz erupted sending a deadly mudslide of melted snow to crush the town below.
A town swallowed in mud
Ruiz had been rumbling for months but then started spewing ash, a sign of an eruption in progress. At 9.30 pm on that fateful day, super-heated lava started melting the ice cap of the 5,200 metre-mountain. The resulting lahar – destructive mudflow – crashed down the 45 kilometres of gullied riverbeds of the volcano’s sides.
At around 11.35 pm, this apocalyptic wall burst onto the fertile floodplain of the Lagunillas River. It struck the town when most people were at home in bed.
Why didn’t more people evacuate hours earlier when the volcano first erupted? It seems that relocating just a few hundred metres to higher ground could have taken people out of harm’s way. And experts had already sent maps showing that Armero was in the path of a likely lahar.
Victor takes a deep breath: We’ve arrived at the crux of the problem. “Most stayed because they didn’t believe it would ever happen,” he said.
And behind that is a history of mixed messages, religious dogma and political football in the months leading up to the eruption. The town’s mayor (who died in the mud) had called out the threat but was branded a ‘scaremonger’ by Tolima’s governor.
Tolima was one of Colombia’s poorer and ‘hillbilly’ departments, often set against central government, and less favoured by Bogotá. Experts were more focused on the coffee city of Manizales to the east.
On the day of the eruption, protocols were in place to evacuate communities around the volcano, but Armero never got a clear message. At 7.30 pm – four hours after the ash-fall – the local Red Cross knocked on doors advising people to leave, but the town’s Catholic priest was also telling everyone to stay put in their houses (though he himself fled the town after a “bad feeling.”)
Meanwhile heavy rain dulled the noise of the eruption that might have triggered a more general flight.
Left behind, townsfolk “were confused and didn’t want to risk leaving their home just for rumours,” explains Victor.
As he talks, we meander along gravel paths through sunlit woodland. Under this idyll, in fact probably about two metres down (the depth of the mud that entombed the town) are the mangled remains of the once-vibrant community and its inhabitants.
The viscous lahar was like a grinding machine, destroying all in its path. Survivors were terribly injured and treated for gaping wounds. The few bodies of the dead that were recovered were horribly mutilated.
Lack of bodies also led to persistent rumours that surviving children were taken secretly from the disaster site and sold into adoption overseas. NGOs still keep a Red Book of Armero children, though until today no case has been proven (you can read more on the Red Book on my original blog here).
A slow rescue response
The rescue in the aftermath was slow. The disaster was only relayed to the world the next day by a crop plane pilot, and the metres-deep soft mud made moving around the site impossible in the first hours and many survivors of the initial lahar died of injuries.
The Colombian army was reluctant to deploy resources, and central government bureaucracy hampered civil rescue teams. Even basic implements – digging tools, water pumps – were in short supply.
Removing the massive blanket of solidified mud was impossible. As a result, many victims lie buried in what is now effectively a massive grave-site.
Ten years after the disaster some symbolic areas were cleared, and human remains reburied.
The town’s small plaza is one of the areas cleared in 1995. It’s like any other in Colombia, but now with trees and a broken cupola, all that’s left of the church, and an enormous cross and kneeling statue of the unmistakable form of Pope John Paul, who came to sanctify the land a year after the tragedy.
By the main road – which cuts through the site – are the skeletal walls of buildings that somehow remained standing, perhaps because they were on slightly higher ground. We wander into the ruined hospital – supposedly ground zero for ghosts – and spook some bats.
A tragedy of the trapped
Looking west, I can see the green flanks of Nevado del Ruiz, but its snowy crater is shrouded in clouds. We drive some kilometres up a road towards the mountain where we look back onto the whole Armero site and can see upwards to the steep wooded ravine that forms the Lagunilla River behind the town. From here it’s obvious that any liquid lahar would supercharge on the descent and blast straight at the town.
We head back to the ruins, cross back over the main road, and a few hundred metres through the forest to a clearing and tomb of Omayra Sánchez. After the mudslide hit, the 13-year-old girl was trapped up to her chin in slurry. Rescuers were unable to free her from the ruins of her house. She died after three agonising days, her eyeballs blackened by the toxins from the crush injuries she’d endured, surrounded by rescue workers who lacked the equipment to release her frail body.
While trapped she was filmed by news teams and her haunting image and soft voice was beamed to the world. She talked about finishing her school work. Asked her mother to pray for her rescue. Then she comforted her own rescuers and insisted they help others before her. This harrowing footage ensured that Omayra would forever be the symbol of Armero, crushed but selfless to the end.
We don’t recommend a visit to Armero while Nevado de Ruiz is on orange or red alert. But when the volcano calms down here’s how to get there:
- Armero is six hours from Bogotá via Honda and Mariquita, or five hours via Vianí and Cambao (a beautiful though less-used road). A good access point and overnight stop is Mariquita, where you can find plenty of cheap hotels. From there you can get a taxi or local bus to the ruins, which are 30 kms along the main road to Ibague.
- At the ruins, a small visitor centre shows films and photos of the town before and after the disaster and can provide a guide to take you around the ruins. Allow three hours for a visit. Payment is discretionary. There’s a contribution box at the visitor’s centre and most people give COP$20,000 to COP$50,000 to the guide depending on how much time they spend there. Bring repellent for the mosquitoes, a sun hat, and something to drink.