Omayra (In Other Words)
At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?
– Ilya Kaminsky
No one had heard of the town until it was gone. Then, gone, everyone heard of the town, stilling their gaze on photos of its ruins, or pushing the image away to spare themselves. People hovered their fingers over the lines that led there, finding the point 165 kilometers west of Bogotá on a map, praying for the dead, the alive, and the missing.
In other words, the town found itself submitted to the incongruous life cycle we inflict upon any destroyed, faraway place: deemed ordinary in life and extraordinary in death, recognized in the moment it becomes unrecognizable unto itself, visible only in the moment it’s people turn into ghosts.
It is safe to say that nearly every Colombian knows the story of Omayra. Many remember the day, the feeling of the photos and videos arriving into their lives in real time, the close and immediate truth of tragedy. Others, like me, in Colombia or in other places far from it, hear the story from mothers, fathers, aunts, grandmothers—people who decide it necessary, for reasons they cannot explain, to pass the story on.
On November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruíz volcano erupted in the state of Caldas, Colombia. Volcanic matter exploded up in three pulses, then began to fall, swallowing its surroundings as it fell, absorbing melted ice cap, debris, trees, and river along its course. Even the most rooted things gave themselves over to the matter’s movement, carried off by its force, contributing more and more mass to its body.
Scientists made language for an occurrence like this. Their word is “lahar,” a volcano-induced mudslide catastrophic for the rate at which it can grow, and for the speed at which it can travel. By the time this particular Lahar reached the quiet agricultural town of Armero, it was fifty meters wide in places, four times its original volume. It moved at a pace of six meters per second.
In all the ways I imagine telling this story, I cannot avoid telling you this: on November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruíz Lahar destroyed the town of Armero. Over 25,000 people died from the eruption—a majority of the town’s population. Those who lived suffered injuries, some minor, some life-altering. No buildings survived; the church, the town’s tallest edifice, suddenly absent from the sky, claimed whole by the lahar. In video footage from that day, bodies encased in mud and ruin lay across bare plains, as though scattered there from somewhere above. Evidence of a town, of a place and people, of life and lives, hidden away in small pockets amid a vast gray tomb.
At dawn on November 14, Omayra Sánchez Garzón was discovered amidst the ruins of Armero, in the grasp of a circumstance that surpasses improbability, edging up against the beginnings of the unimaginable. In the lahar’s wake, Omayra had become trapped chest-deep in a muddy pool of water, her body pinned between sunken pieces of debris. Rescue workers heard her voice crying out for help, then located her among the wreckage of her old home. Omayra was thirteen years old when the lahar hit Armero. A child—miraculously alive amid the rubble, tragically caught in its clasp.
Moments after she was found, Red Cross agents, survivors, emergency officials, TV reporters, foreign and domestic journalists, and others collected around Omayra. They set to work, some on finding a way to release the girl from the ruin’s grip, others on broadcasting her face and condition across Colombia and around the world. In video footage from that day, a huddle of strangers swarms Omayra, conversing with her from above. In one clip, Omayra tells everyone to please go home and get some rest, then come back with a way to get her out.
Below the surface, Omayra’s body was stuck between the brick door to her house, and the corpse of her aunt. Some tried diving down and pulling on the corpse or the door, but nothing would move. At one point, rescuers fastened her aunt’s body to a rope connected to a helicopter. Against the helicopter’s pull, the corpse still would not yield. Officials and volunteers lacked the proper equipment to perform an amputation—if they tried with what they had, there was a high risk Omayra would bleed out and die.
Eventually, rescue experts concluded the only way to save Omayra would be to drain the water with a pump and loosen the ruins to set her free.
Omayra lived for sixty hours this way, stuck under the surface, surrounded, still. In that time, no one—the Red Cross, the Colombian government, the journalists with thousand-dollar cameras dangling from their necks—managed to retrieve the pump she needed to survive. In her final day, Omayra spoke directly into a camera, addressing her mother—separated by the lahar—asking her to find a way to get help, then telling her that she loved her, then wishing her goodbye. In her final hours, Omayra began to hallucinate, saying she needed to get out soon, that she had already missed two days of school and if she missed more, she would have to repeat the year.
When Omayra’s breath stopped—at five minutes past 10 a.m. on November 16, 1985—the crowd draped a blue and white checkered tablecloth over her head. I do not know how quickly or slowly they left that place, stepping away from the scene, moving on with their work, and their aims.
When my father tells me stories, he sometimes tells them in English, and sometimes in Spanish. I’ve tried many times, failing over and over, to piece together the formula he employs unconsciously in speaking together, how he determines, on some secret frequency, which language is best suited for what task. Sometimes, a conversation winds and soars enough that the two languages are required in tandem, and together, we switch between both, back and forth, as though playing a song that modulates between keys, refusing to belong absolutely to either one.
When I hear the story of Omayra from my father, for the first time and then many other times after, he speaks only in English. With his second language, he recounts leaving Bogotá, where he grew up and studied medicine, to complete part of his training in a small, unknown town called Armero, a place tucked away in a flatland between two ranges of Colombian mountains. For some good part of 1979, my father worked in the town’s psychiatric hospital, an inpatient facility. His description of the place, which becomes the architecture for my imagination of it, is more or less unremarkable: the land flat and fertile, the town quiet and full with color. It was a beautiful place. The hospital was the only white building in town, built in the 1920s. The church was the only building I really remember, the only thing you could see from anywhere.
On the morning of November 16, 1985, Frank Fournier arrived in Armero from New York City, sent to take pictures of the devastation. He found Omayra soon after arriving, and stayed with her for hours until she died. Fournier took several photos of Omayra, including the one you might have seen before: a close-up of her tight black curls, her swollen gray-white hands, her reddened eyes, her golden earrings, and the remains of her old life floating behind her. Omayra died at 10:05 a.m. that morning. That afternoon, Fournier’s assistants shipped his film from Bogotá to Paris. A few days later, Paris Match Magazine published the photo.
A photograph exists to stop time, to wrestle an instant still. The image is captured, taken, then carried against its will into a future it could have wanted no part in. Once there, it proves an obedient captive: subservient and still, bowing over and over to the commands of its capturer.
In the days that followed, people glimpsed Frank Fournier’s photo in cities and towns around the world. In 1986, it won him the World Press Photo award, the singular defining accomplishment of Fournier’s career. Somewhere along the way, Omayra’s face became something both more and less than her face, which is to say it became a symbol: a human device, a face tasked with making legible a tragedy hard to believe, and impossible to comprehend. In interviews given in the wake of his fame, Fournier labors to ascribe a greater moral project to the photo, carefully bestowing a veil of ethical absolution to the larger ritual of his profession, in the process regarding Omayra as valuable more for what she could mean than for who she was. Her power, to him, derived from being entirely indistinguishable: “There are hundreds of thousands of Omayras around the world—important stories about the poor and the weak and we photojournalists are there to create the bridge.”
In the ways I imagine telling you this story, I find language to articulate the physics of symbol, the mechanics of its stranglehold, to measure the precise way it gives and takes. I calculate just what is gained and lost, and by whom, as Omayra’s face graces coffee tables and television screens. I speak in English, like my father, a language enthralled by categorization, and located at some sufficient distance from what I am ordering it to recollect. Perhaps I imagine myself transcending my fate, which is to become part of my own calculation, the giving and taking, the acts of transaction tucked in the creases of every story and all its tellings. What I imagine only pins me further and further to the bounds of where I am—among injudicious, flailing words, among a language that cannot halt time or bring anyone from death back to life.
My father left Armero at the end of that year, six years before the eruption. He was in Houston when he heard what happened, having just left Bogotá and Colombia, for good.
It was news that had come so many times, in so many forms before: people in his country were dying, in terrible quantities and under unthinkable circumstances. But this time it was Armero, a place he had lived and worked, a place where he’d known people, most of whom he could be sure were now dead. And there was one girl trapped under the water for two days; no one could save her. She died there. How terrible.
It is safe to say that we are ultimately selfish in our receipt of stories, our sight inevitably circling back to ourselves. We hear each story for the news it brings us of our lives, readily setting aside what remains. When I listen to my father’s story for the first time, I am young, fifteen maybe, and all I wonder is what would have happened had he been there when the Nevado Ruíz erupted. Would he have survived? Would he have left the country? Would he be in the US now? Would I be alive?
I read these lines by Ocean Vuong, pace inside them, wondering about things as big as survival, coincidence, language, or as small as the life of my father: “to live then, is a matter of time, of timing.”
I wonder, then, what it is to die. Perhaps to die is a matter of location. Within us: something in the body dislodged, gone astray, missing—a disruption of our exact biological arrangement. Or beyond us: location in a place that lacks the basic elements we need to survive; location in a nation, or else a world, that permits our dying. We keep living, or we cease to live, as a consequence of our whereabouts across time. “She passed away;” we say—”passed,” the way minutes and days pass, and “away,” implying another location, somewhere else; we describe death through the simultaneous grammars of time and place.
Medical records and newspaper reports list Omayra’s cause of death as “exposure.” This is the reason she could not live. Likely it was a combination of hypothermia and gangrene, onset by the conditions, the cold and the wet, that caused her body to stop functioning. Exposure. At first glance, the word seems too imprecise and innocuous to constitute a cause of death; at second glance, revelatory of death itself. It was exposure that killed Omayra, exposure to a survivable set of conditions for an unsurvivable amount of time.
From my father’s descriptions of Colombia, I imagine the place as an oil and water mix of beauty and brutality, neither making any sense as a backdrop for the other. A place where circumstance and chance—under the rule of time—can turn the living, dead and the dead, forgotten, or worse still: disfigured by memory. Perhaps, it is to say: Colombia is like anywhere.
News reports and academic texts record the Armero tragedy as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Colombia. I pause on that term—”natural disaster”—consider its implications and assumptions, its negotiations and its performance.
Two months before the eruption, multiple volcanological experts issued a warning that the Nevado del Ruíz had demonstrated signs of unrest. Days before, reports urged the state to evacuate its residents. The government dismissed the reports, along with pleas for protection from the mayor of the town. The day before the eruption—my father tells me—my friend, a medical student stationed in Armero, saw ash falling from the sky like snow and went to the local police to ask what she should do. They told her to stay, that it would be okay. She survived, but her legs were amputated. After the eruption, though, some military personnel outfitted with helicopters arrived to Armero; no full units of Colombia’s 100,000-member army or 65,000-member police force were dispatched to support rescue efforts.
In other words: if the Armero tragedy is truly a natural disaster, then we ourselves and the systems we create must be considered a part of nature, too. The earth crashes and erupts and shakes, yes, but it does so into our world, on and over and under our hierarchies and broken prescriptions of human value. It could be true that all disasters are natural, or it could be true that none are, and in either case, the term itself shrivels and falls from meaning.
I admit to placing my trust in language, in the capacity of terms over image, though I know both to wear their pitfalls on their sleeves. I know language, too, can partake in the circus of spectacle, the suffocation of a subject into something less. I remember these lines of Maggie Nelson: “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered. You called this the cookie-cutter function of our minds. You said that you knew this not from shunning language but from immersion in it.”
I wondered if I could put my own names to the tragedy of Armero, to Omayra, to Fournier’s photograph, to my father’s country, to what a country becomes when it cannot keep its people alive. Then, I wondered what unspeakable things my names would take as their victims.
Days after the lahar hit, a mass funeral was held in Ibague, the capital of the state of Tolima, where Armero had been. At the funeral, protesters held up a banner, reading: “The Volcano Didn’t Kill 22,000 People. The Government Killed Them.”
In a 2015 article by Colombia’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo, German Santamaria writes this of Omayra: “Alone in the coming night, alone among so many dead, alone amidst the debris of her city, alone, abandoned by men and by Jesus and by Marx, abandoned by all.”
It is complicated, my father reminds me over the phone. Remember, the Nevado de Ruíz hadn’t erupted in over one hundred and fifty years. And remember that the Colombian palace of Justice had just been sieged by the M-19, the guerrillas, just a week before Armero was destroyed. And yes, the government failed, you must say that. It was horrible. It is all complicated. Maybe, Ricardo, say something like: “the country was in shambles.”
I suppose I do prefer language, despite its shortcomings, for residing at least a little closer to us than an image ever could. Language is formed within and by our own flesh; it lingers and resounds in the distances between us. It runs in and out of us, like breath. And like breath, we are rarely conscious of language’s labor or lifespan. When words stop being names, maybe they become us, or else a kind of casing for what is just outside the bounds of our sight: our wishes and tragedies, our imaginations. With language, we can propel our hungers and visions and demands into the world. We can breathe and make terms for ourselves—terms unmet by the nations that surround us, terms that are real, though perhaps unrealized in the places where they turn from noise to sound.
Running my fingers across my friend’s camera, feeling its ridges and curves, I arrive on a button, marked “exposure.” The exposure setting on a camera, I learn, delineates how much light is allowed into the frame to create the image. The camera itself is a device constructed to practice a kind of selective exposure—the camera exposes film to light of a certain kind, to a certain degree, and only from there can a picture start to form. Once made, the picture itself is imagined as capable of partaking in a different kind of exposure, to expose an unknown horror, or an untold story, to shed light on a cause. Holding something in light—in a certain condition, for a certain amount of time.
Exposure: a word with multiple definitions, meaning something only when tethered to the backdrop of its context, otherwise meaning anything, or nothing at all. Words betray their singular meanings, baited by other possibilities. Maybe tragedies are like that. Maybe people, too, turning away from definition toward something else, then doubling back, are clarified by our conditions and made incomplete by them in turn. I do not know whether we love or fear what makes us legible, though maybe all I have truly been wanting to say is this: Omayra is a person we cannot know.
Mama, si me eschuchas
yo creo que si
reza para que yo pueda
y esta gente me ayude
mami, te quiero mucho
papi, mi hermano
– Omayra, in the days before her breath stopped.
Today, where the lahar swept Armero away, there is still no town. The plot of land where Armero stood was converted to a national park. Green—trees, grass, and other living things—have grown out of and over the lahar, the gray. Spread across the fields and forests of the park are white crosses with names carved on their sides. And somewhere inside the park lies an altar for Omayra, where strangers have come and gone, and left crosses, photos, toys, and flowers in her honor.
There is little public trace of Omayra’s family and their experience in the wake of her passing. In one interview, Maria Aleida Sánchez Garzon, Omayra’s mother, who moved to Bogotá after Armero was destroyed, says that she will continue to live for her son, Alvaro Enrique. He survived the eruption, losing only a finger. Less, even, is known about Omayra’s life before she died. “Omayra had her dolls, but mostly she left them on her wall. She didn’t really like to play, more than anything she was dedicated to her studies,” remembers her mother. “She was so sincere… She was always with me, protecting me. She always hated when people treated me badly; more than mother and daughter, we were friends,” Maria Aleida recounts in a televised program commemorating the thirty-year anniversary of the eruption. In the same program, Gustavo Lastra—a rescue worker for the civil defense who was with Omayra the three days before she died—described her: “always lovely, a warrior, beautiful, alive, intelligent…” He pauses there, his face wet with tears, his voice cracked with decades-old grief. “We spoke a lot, we went over multiplication tables, we prayed, we sang… they were moments that would leave any man very marked.”
At the close of the program, Omayra’s mother and Gustavo Lastra speak to each other over the phone Maria Aleida addresses Gustavo: “I would want, one day, to see you, and embrace you. Because you know her sense of humor, her sweat. The moments you spent there, I want you to tell me many things.”
One article reports that Omayra loved to dance. I could guess, too, because she prayed often during the final days of her life, that she believed in God.
It is no wonder that Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Colombia’s greatest wordsmith, was so fascinated by the conditions of the dying. In his Nobel lecture, entitled the “Solitude of Latin America,” he imagines the possibility of a “new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die.” In García Marquez’s eyes and language, it is not the liberties or luxuries afforded in our life, but rather the degree of autonomy allowed in our dying, that constitutes human freedom. It is the boat raising its flag, circling back and forth against time, the note love-sick Florentino Ariza discovers from his father, just a single line long: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.
It is important to know that, for most of the sixty hours Omayra remained stuck—awaiting the water pump, the required rescue resource that never arrived—she knew that her face and story were being signaled out to the world, that a mass of people waited on the other side of her words, looking to understand, to know, praying for her survival.
When I imagine telling you this story, each time I end here, on these terms. I tell you about a moment I found sifting through the collection of video footage of Omayra in the wreck. I do not know when the moment was filmed, or by whom.
In that moment, Omayra Sánchez speaks, her words tailed instantly by a smile:
me tomen una con la cámara
que salga yo,
This is what I meant to tell you, without ever having been able to imagine it. Omayra was alive, alive until the moment her breath stopped. Vulnerable to—but not consisting of—her conditions. A child: taken with the world, then taken from it. Offering a language, a vision of her own making, to the frame. Omayra: one in a crowd of deaths—a crowd, like any lost mass of people, comprised of whole lives and whole losses unto themselves, compiled one by one. Omayra Sánchez Garzón: triumphant, remarkable, more than all else: some-one (individual), some-where (outside our clenches and claims).
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick
“‘A Ella No Le Gustaba Jugar; Era Muy Dedicada al Estudio’: Mamá de Omayra.” Semana, 13 Nov. 2015, https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/mama-de-omaira-maria-aleida-garzon-30-anos-despues-de-armero/449700-3/.
Deadly Lahars from Nevado Del Ruíz, Colombia 13, 1985. United States Geological Survey, https://web.archive.org/web/20131113111212/http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hazards/lahar/RuizLahars.html.
“El Caso de Omayra Sánchez.” Momentos REC, 1985, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVVZDdQPqHo&feature=emb_title.
“EMERGENCIA EN EMERGENCIA.” Semana, 23 Dec. 1985, https://www.semana.com/economia/articulo/emergencia-en-emergencia/7241-3/.
Fournier, Frank. “Picture Power: Tragedy of Omayra Sanchez.” BBC News, 30 Sept. 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4231020.stm.
García Márquez, Gabriel. La Soledad de America Latina. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1982/marquez/lecture/.
Godoy, C., & Moreno, C. (n.d.). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdFAJ-RA4nY.
Gorriaran, Ramon. “La Larga Agonía de Omayra Sánchez.” El País, 16 Nov. 1985, https://elpais.com/diario/1985/11/17/internacional/501030013_850215.html.
Ishak, Natasha. “Omayra Sanchez Was Trapped in a Mudflow When a Photographer Captured Her Last Moments.” All That’s Interesting, Sept. 2019, https://allthatsinteresting.com/omayra-sanchez.
“La Ciudad Perdida.” Semana, 13 Nov. 2018, https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/armero-la-ciudad-perdida/448947/.
“Mamá de Omayra y Rescatista Que La Acompañó Hablan 30 Años Después.” Noticias Caracol, 13 Nov. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RznFK8ncAzY.
Montalbano, William D. “Three Weeks after Volcano Tragedy Colombia Shrouded in Controversy.” Ottowa Citizen, 12 Dec. 1985, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=36YyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=j-8FAAAAIBAJ&pg=1248,1269632.
“Omaira Sánchez, Símbolo Del Final de Armero.” Radio Nacional de Colombia, 11 Oct. 2020, https://www.radionacional.co/noticia/regiones/omaira-sanchez-simbolo-de-la-tragedia-de-armero.
“Ordeal Ends in Death.” The Leader Post, 18 Nov. 1985, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=TX5WAAAAIBAJ&sjid=QEENAAAAIBAJ&pg=3684,440325.
Santamaría, Germán. “Por Favor: ¡Hay Que Salvar a Omayra.” El Tiempo, 12 Nov. 2015, https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-16429163.
Treaster, Joseph B. “COLOMBIA’S RESCUE OPERATION DRAWS DIVIDED ASSESSMENTS.” New York Times, 24 Nov. 1985, https://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/24/world/colombia-s-rescue-operation-draws-divided-assessments.html.
Treaster, Joseph B. “RESCUE TEAMS CALL FOR HELP TO SAVE THOUSANDS TRAPPED IN COLOMBIAN VOLCANO MUD; ‘WE NEED PEOPLE.’” New York Times, 16 Nov. 1985, https://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/16/world/rescue-teams-call-for-help-save-thousands-trapped-colombian-volcano-mud-we-need.html.
Trujillo, David. Los Niños Perdidos. https://radioambulante.org/audio/los-ninos-perdidos-pt1.