The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 18, 1985
town is now a graveyard
GUAYABAL, Colombia - The rescue
squads have just about finished their job of removing the living from
Armero, a moonscape about five miles from here that once was a prosperous
town. Now it is nature's turn to do its work.
Armero is beyond redemption. The government has declared that the city
- which had a population of 22,000 before it was buried early Thursday by
an avalance of volcanic mud - officially will become "holy
ground," a cemetery for the 15,000 townsfolk who government
authorities said died there. Officials estimated that more than 25,000
people in all died in the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz.
Yesterday, weary refugees waited in Guayabal for the few encouraging
reports that trickled out of Armero. They talked of a town that was called
the "white city" for its rice and cotton mills, and they talked
of the wall of mud that reduced it to a plain of mud and debris.
"There's nothing there but mud, sand and blood," said Gloria
Quinteroof San Felipe, who had sent her 14-year-old son to school at one
of five private academies. "I think he's gone, because we saw the
place where he lived and the house wasn't there anymore."
"We will never be able to return there," said Edgar
Hernandez, 19, who was waiting with his brother at the Guayabal refugee
center, hoping to find four members of their family who had disappeared.
At its death, Armero was a young town, established 90 years ago as an
agricultural center in the rich, broad valley that lies 30 miles east and
16,000 feet below the Andean summit of Nevado del Ruiz. Because of the
clouds that perpetually hide the 17,400-foot peak, the people of Armero
could rarely see the volcano that would kill them.
Nor did many of them see the mud that swallowed the town at just past
midnight Thursday after the volcano's violent eruption melted part of its
icy crown, unleashing a torrent of debris down several rivers. The worst
of it went down the Lagunilla River.
The 15-foot wall of earth passed through fields of sorgum and corn
before it struck town, crushing houses and twisting cars in a deafening
roar. It swallowed the town's two schools, its soccer stadium and the
fancy discotheques and the movie theater that attracted visitors from
smaller towns around. It poured through the two-story offices and banks on
the tree-lined town square, which, in old photos, resembled a similar
scene in many small towns in North America.
"It was the best city in the area," said Manuel Reyes, a
captain in the Colombia Civil Defense. "It's so sad. An entire town
lost and nothing can be done."
Those who heard the avalanche ran in the dark, for electrical power was
among the first victims. "There were a lot of people running in front
of us," said Hernandez, who worked as a butcher. "The mud was
coming behind us.
"We were running and we noticed it coming from another side,"
he said. "We had run two blocks, but by the third block, we were
There were perhaps 80 people dressed in nightclothes on the small crest
of 18th Street where the brothers stopped, a three-block island that used
to be a neighborhood called Mango. Others escaped to the high ground in
the cemetery or at the town's edge.
From their island refuge among the stucco houses, the survivors saw
that the mud had covered the roofs in the surrounding middle-class
neighborhood. They watched while bodies floated by face down and pulled
out three children, but they had died by dawn on Thursday.
When the sun rose, the survivors surveyed the town and saw what one
described as "a beach" strewn with broken buildings and bodies -
nothing left of the province of Tolima's second largest city. The
Hernandez brothers and the other people on the island would have to wait
until Friday for the civil defense squads to build a bridge of scrap metal
for them to escape to dry ground.
Some of the damage done by the avalanchce can be repaired. Near
Mariquita, where the Guila River deposited eight feet of mud, workers
began yesterday to replace the fallen bridge that had cut off the main
highway north. But in Armero, they will rebuild nothing, except from the
half-mile of highway that has disappeared under the trecherous mud.
"With time the mud will dry and the bodies will decompose,"
said Hernandez. "Later plants will cover the area. Armero is erased
from the map."