Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 18, 1985
Colombian 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 surrounded."

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." home page   
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