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Thirty Years Since the Armero Disaster: What Lessons Did This Deadly Tragedy Teach the World?

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1985, the Nevado Del Ruiz Volcano in Colombia, located in the Andes Mountains of South America, erupted sending a destructive mudflow down its slopes. Flooding claimed the lives of over 25,000 people in the town of Armero.

A storm had been brewing over the area and the explosive eruption that occurred in the mountains was obscured by rain that night. The eruption went unnoticed by the residents of Armero. Those who experienced the eruption had no way to transmit information quickly and efficiently to Armero, the place that was most in danger.

This eruption is considered the second most deadly volcanic eruption of the 20th century, according to a document compiled by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

According to Jim Andrews, AccuWeather meteorologist and an expert in Earth sciences, "The Nevado Del Ruiz Volcano is a stratovolcano of 5,279-meters high and is located along the Central Cordillera in central Colombia. One of the volcanoes in the 'Ring of Fire' in the Pacific. The Nevado Del Ruiz is topped by a layer of ice on the summit (snow and ice), despite its tropical setting near the Ecuador (about 5 degrees north latitude)."

Armero Tragedy

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1985, the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano in Colombia, located in the Andes Mountains of South America, erupted sending a destructive mudflow down its slopes. Flooding took the lives of over 25,000 people in the town of Armero.
(Photo/J. Marso in late November 1985/USGS)

Nevado del Ruiz volcano

(Photo/N. Banks on November 26, 1985/USGS)

Headwaters of Azufrado River

(Photo/T. Pierson on November 26, 1985/USGS)

Explosive Eruption at Summit Crater

Broad summit of Nevado del Ruiz. (Photo/J. Marso in late November 1985/USGS)

Lahars Merge at Base of Volcano

Headwaters of Gualí River. (Photo/N. Banks on December 18, 1985/USGS)

Lahars Grow in Size Through Erosion

Gualí River valley. (Photo/R. Janda on December 18, 1985/USGS)

High Ground Means Safety

Gualí River. (Photo/R. Janda on November 26, 1985/USGS)

How Did This Tragedy Unfold?

"On Nov. 13, 1985, there was a major blast atop the volcano, which unleashed clouds of ash and falls of pumice," Andrews said. "The eruptive cycle, which began in September of 1985 and lasted until July of 1991, was classed as VEI 3 on the logarithmic VEI scale, which runs from VEI 0 to VEI 8. The well-known Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 was VEI 4, for comparison."

"The heat of the eruption melted some of the icecap, triggering volcanic mudflows (known as lahars) in at least two of the canyons below the summit. Reports from the day of the eruption tell of heavy rain in the area; it mingled with the airborne ash. The town of Armero, east of the volcano, was devastated, but a lahar also caused major loss of life in Chinchina to the west," Andrews added.

Survivors said that ash fall began at 4 p.m., alerting nearby populations. Local authorities, over loudspeakers, advised people to wear a damp handkerchief to protect their noses and their respiratory systems and return home to safety.

At about 9 p.m., Armero was completely without electricity service and so there were no means of communicating the dangers to the town.

Armero was flooded with several pulses of flowing material. By 11:25 p.m., the first pulse arrived with a flood of cold water, free of debris, when the channel of the Lagunillas River overflowed and was swept toward the downtown of Armero. This water was from a lake located just upstream which had been displaced when destructive mudflows entered the lake.

At 11:35 p.m., the second pulse arrived. This was bigger, and in just a span of 10-20 minutes, razed most of the buildings and killed most people in Armero. Mudflow depths ranged from 2-5 meters.

Around 11:50 p.m., the third pulse arrived at a rate of about half of the second. Then, in the next hour or so, a number of six to eight smaller pulses were experienced by survivors trapped in the mud. These pulses lifted up people who were already floating in the mud and pushed them a few meters ahead.

The last recorded thrust hit Armero shortly after 1 a.m. on Nov. 14, according to a review from the USGS Volcano Hazards Program.

Revelation of the Tragedy to the World; Mobilization of Help

At dawn on Thursday, Nov. 14, 1985, Armero was held incommunicado with the world and the world with Armero.

It was a time without a digital world, without the existence of social networks for posting and tweeting about breaking news. There was not a large media presence in the region of Armero. The media was still very centralized at that time in the country's capital, Bogota, with national leadership of some radio networks, some newspapers and three television channels that only broadcasted some live programs from their studios.

In fact, the tragedy was discovered when a fumigation plane, commanded by Captain Fernando Rivera, flew over the area a little after 6 a.m. That is when he saw the magnitude of the tragedy and reported it to the control tower at the nearest airport. In turn, the control tower shared the news via radio with a national broadcasting network, and the tragedy was unveiled to the world.

From that moment, the Colombian government and international organizations like the Red Cross and Civil Defense, among others, began mobilizing to reach Armero and proceed with plans to help victims and rescue survivors.

Heroes and Victims: Balancing the Need to Help While Living Through a Personal Tragedy

Retired Colonel of the Colombian Army Andres Diaz Uribe is a living testimony of the many who were touched by the tragedy of Armero. Diaz was born in Armero, and he left the town three years before his enrollment in the Colombian Military Academy in Bogota.

In the tragedy, he lost his parents and 27 relatives. Most of their bodies were not recovered. The day after the tragedy, Diaz was notified by his superiors about the disaster. The Colombian Army received instructions to go to the area immediately.

"It was a lot of confusion for me. The only thing going through my mind was to reach Armero and see what was happening," Diaz said.

There was no telephone communication and many roads were closed, shutting off access into the area.

The country was grief-stricken. The government of Colombia, which had to deal with a strong civil, political and social issue just one week before the tragedy, began to give instructions to deal with the Armero tragedy.

The armed forces and rescue teams were sent and a military mayor was named in charge of Armero and was responsible for managing and controlling all operations.

Diaz reached Armero by helicopter to help the team. Meanwhile, he had to manage his own personal pain since he had no updates about his family.

While flying in the helicopter, the team found an island where there were approximately 100 survivors.

30 Years Later: Uncovering Nevado del Ruiz's Historic 1985 Eruption

"On landing to rescue people in the midst of my despair, my great mission was to help them but they simultaneously gave me hope of finding my family," Diaz said. "The first person I saw in that group of survivors was a woman who was a high school classmate and two of her relatives. Today, 30 years after the tragedy, that woman that I rescued is my wife and we have two children of 15 and 20 years."

Diaz told AccuWeather that ash fell until the second day, followed by three days of sunshine for rescue operations. On the third day, showers ignited in the area. Rescue teams began to smell stronger odors of decomposition of the bodies of people and animals.

"The heat index was very high [during search and rescue operations]," Diaz added. "Area temperatures remained between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit with a lot of humidity."

During the fifth day of the search operations, there was new alarm raised that something might be happening with the volcano again, and they had to evacuate. Later on, they returned to continue with the operations.

Diaz spent seven days at the site of the tragedy. His team managed to rescue about 5,000 people, but among these, his parents and many relatives were never found.

He said that Colombia has tried to slowly erase the name of Armero from the map and official documents of Colombia. They have changed their identity cards and license plates of cars. Before it showed up "Armero" now it says "Guayabal." About this, Colonel Diaz said, "they may change the documents, and the word Armero does not appear anymore, but in my mind, it is always living history and I still do not know anything about the whereabouts of my parents and family."

"In 1986, Pope John Paul II was in Armero and the area was declared a cemetery, although I am not aware if there is any official document to talk about the change of land use," Diaz added.

Learning From the Tragedy, Looking Into the Future

Speaking about the lessons learned following the tragedy of Armero, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said in a weekly newsletter on Oct. 29, 2009, "Communities around the world learned valuable lessons from this calamity. These include proper equipment and training to monitor scientists understand and help others understand what is happening."

"Effective communication between all parties is one of the most essential components of life around an active volcano. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 awakened the whole volcanology community responded, thus averting a disaster like the Armero tragedy. Every day, we continue to learn more about volcanoes on Earth. Looking back into the past is another way to catch a glimpse of the future."

However, Andrews said, "The loss of life in the November 1985 eruption is the fourth highest on record for a volcanic eruption. Sadly, if people had known of the danger that hung over the region, there might have been efforts to relocate people from the most vulnerable sites, such as Armero."

"Armero was situated below the mouth of a canyon draining the eastern slopes of Nevado Del Ruiz," Andrews said. "The lahar followed the canyon, racing downstream to the canyon mouth above Armero. Here, it fanned out, filling much of the town and nearby area in volcanic mud deep enough to overwhelm most residents. Tragedies like this offer a warning to millions of Earth residents, especially their leaders, in vulnerable sites world wide of the need to reconsider their locations and make changes where possible."

In the affected area of Colombia, people still live near the volcano, and it is still a threat to the towns and villages around. Even small eruptions can cause devastating mudflows. The ice on top of the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano is constantly monitored and the authorities continues to take the threat seriously. They issue reports and permanent alerts, mainly from the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Manizales.

The survivors moved to other cities and their lives started again. Armero has never been rebuilt, and there are no publicized plans to do so. The Colombian government year-after-year recognizes publicly that they have learned much from the tragedy of Armero and therefore now have a national agency to deal with natural disasters.

When the volcano erupted and the tragedy of Armero happened, there was not an international team of volcanologists assembled to quickly provide a wide range of assistance. There were no major strategic alliances with various government agencies to respond and address natural disasters. Less than a year after the disaster of Armero, in 1986, the United States through a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey and USAID / OFDA agencies gathered a team of experts to form the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VADP) in order to provide rapid assistance to developing countries around the world.