The Nevado del Ruiz, also known as La Mesa de Herveo, is a glacier-capped volcano located about 80 miles west of Bogota, Colombia. It is part of the Andes mountain range.
On November 13, 1985, the volcano erupted and sent a devastating flood of lahar throughout nearby towns and villages.
The most considerable death toll was in the small town of Armero, located about 30 miles from the volcano. More than 20,000 of its almost 29,000 inhabitants were killed.
The most memorably heartbreaking story in the aftermath of the disaster was Omayra Sánchez, a 13-year-old girl who found herself trapped among the debris of her destroyed home and struggling for 60 hours before her final breath.
Rescue workers attempted to dislodge Sánchez from a deep pool of cold, muddy water with no success. They had appealed – repeatedly – to the government for aid, more specifically a pump and other tools to lower the water level.
Still, authorities said the logistical challenge had been overwhelming enough that the equipment arrived late.
When Omayra Sánchez died at 9:45 a.m. on November 17, she pitched backward in the cold water with only one arm, nose, mouth, and one eye remaining above the surface. Someone then covered her with a tablecloth.
As the public became aware of the girl’s struggle for life through the media, her death became an enduring symbol of the Colombian government’s failures in handling and assisting victims of natural disasters.
The eruption of Nevado del Ruiz started with black ash columns at 3:00 p.m. Colombian geological department ordered the evacuation of areas within proximity to the volcano.
Red Cross and an emergency committee proceeded with the orders four hours later. Electrical failure due to heavy rain in Armero had prevented local authorities from receiving the emergency message on time.
Residents were informed that the ash column did not pose a danger. Unawareness of the more alarming risk made them reluctant to evacuate.
The volcano exploded that night at 9:09 p.m., sending 35 million metric tons of erupted materials, including magma.
9 Death Toll
A dense, fast-moving flow of solidified lava (pyroclastic flow) melted snow and glaciers. Thick lahars flooded the river valleys located on the volcano’s flanks.
At around 11:30 p.m., a massive water flow swept through Armero and killed more than 21,000 inhabitants, or 75% of the town’s population, because of the lahars. In nearby villages, 1800 more died.
Until the disaster happened, there had been no apparent signs of an imminent eruption. That said, authorities’ failures to take preventive measures further exacerbated the death toll. Locals even called the volcano a “Sleeping Lion” because it had not erupted since 1845.