Nevado del Ruiz, 1985 : mud, memories and moving on

Some of the valleys that surround the slopes of Nevado del Ruiz. The lahar bulked up as it travelled downwards and could have been up to 50 m thick at points
Some of the valleys that surround the slopes of Nevado del Ruiz. The lahar bulked up as it travelled downwards and could have been up to 50 m thick at points

I was 16 when the November 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz sent hot slurries of melted snow, ash, rocks and pumice more than 70km downhill straight into several settlements in the middle of the night. At dawn the following morning the settlement of Armero had all but disappeared under this flow, taking around 75% of its residents with it. Across the valleys more than 24,000 people lost their lives to those flows.

Like me, even the youngest kids who survived or witnessed the scenes of this eruption are now middle-aged, the valleys are green again.

USGS Image of the lahars covering the town of Armero in November 1985
USGS Image of the lahars covering the town of Armero in November 1985

A kernel of volcanologists were created in that moment, and more importantly an army of eye-witnesses who directly recall the impact and agonies of that night and morning. They also have insights into the attitudes and issues that lead to the rudest possible awakening when the lahars ploughed down the slopes of the volcano.

I looked up the river, towards the mountain, and I could see so much mud. It was a huge thing with giant trees, it came with roots that have been taken from the earth, and then it hit me and covered me….I felt as if it was those machines that process rice (eyewitness account)

These eye witness testimonies contain a remarkable flow of information; as rich and insightful into past events as the deposits that volcanologists frequently scramble over.  When the STREVA team held one of our forensic workshops in Colombia with our Project Partners it became clear during this, and subsequent research that a great service would come from finding a way to capture these important memories, for the people who live with the volcano now.

Part of the point of this film to help with sharing experience of the 1985 eruption with the next generation. Alex from Lambdafilms shares some of his footage!
Part of the point of this film to help with sharing experience of the 1985 eruption with the next generation. Alex from Lambda Films shares some of his footage!

We are making a series of films to convey events according to those caught in it, how people live with the volcano today, and answering the most important questions the population has about living with volcanic risk. The first of these films is premiering this week at our partner Servicio Geological Colombiano’s (SGC) commemoration activities for Nevado Del Ruiz . We’ve worked with one of our UK Partners, (Lambda Films) to do this. We understand the value of well shot films, and they have been patient with our need for volcanic detail.

Watching the result of the filming
One of our interviewees watches her footage. Teresa Armijos (UEA) has been working on the films and researching community vulnerability and James from Lambda films has worked with us in Colombia and St. Vincent.

The aftermath of the eruption remains firmly in the world’s eye as a consequence of the images that spread around the world. Sometimes shocking,  awards were handed out for the photographs that captured that desparate tragedy.

The disturbing image Omayra Sanchez, taken just a few hours before she died, with her legs trapped in the wreckage of her home. This image was taken by Frank Fournier,who won the World Press Photo Foundation Award for this image.
The disturbing image of Omayra Sanchez, taken just a few hours before she died, with her legs trapped in the wreckage of her home. This image was taken by Frank Fournier,who won the World Press Photo Foundation Award for this image.

Back in 1985 and back in the UK, a fairly brave piece of children’s programming stuck with broadcasting these images and covered the last few days of life for Omayra Sanchez , as she was trapped in the mud. There was no fairytale ending for her and that remains with me today, a permanent reminder of the complex issues that surround volcanic disasters. With our films we’re not looking to shock anyone but we are looking to work with SGC to use these memories to learn how to improve the outcome from the next eruption. We hope we have done justice to the communities of Nevado del Ruiz who continue to thrive around the volcano.

family_ndR NdR_gang_together_civildefence

Thanks to everyone who participated in the films and the filming, and to the  UK Natural Environment and Economic and Social Research Councils for KE funding.  All photos in this blog by Anna Hicks, unless otherwise stated.

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