The Death of Omayra Sanchez

An intimate photo of Omayra Sanchez was tkaen, but photographer and rescuers was unable to rescue her out of the volcanic rubble

This photo was taken by Frank Fournier in Colombia on Saturday 16 November 1985, a few days after the eruption of the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. The landslide provoked by the eruption had already killed 24,000 people as the local authorities failed to take preventive measures despite the warnings of vulcanologists.

In the town of Armero, 13-year old Omayra Sánchez was caught under the debris transported by the mud. For two full days and three nights, rescue workers tried to free her with the whole world watching her ordeal on TV (it was live broadcast by Spanish television TVE). The crane and the hydraulic pump needed to clear the debris didn’t arrive in time. Omarya’s hips had been injured by metal bars and her legs were trapped (held down by bricks and clutched in the arms of her dead aunt).

At the beginning of her 60-hour long ordeal, she was lucid, talking and joking with the rescue workers around her, eating sweets and singing songs. As the end came, she said goodbyes (adios to her mother) and began to hallucinate, fretting that she was going to be punished for missing school. A New York Times article from the day she died (November 16, 1985) reported that:

She was exhausted and despite her impressive faith and calm, she died of a heart attack on 16 November, hours after Fournier took the photo.

He remembers:

I arrived in Bogota from New York about two days after the volcanic eruption. The area I needed to get to was very remote. It involved a five-hour drive and then about two and a half hours walking. Dawn was just breaking and the poor girl was in pain and very confused
The country itself was in political turmoil – shortly before the explosion, there had been a takeover of the Palace of Justice in Bogota by leftist M-19 guerrillas….

I met a farmer who told me of this young girl who needed help. He took me to her, she was almost on her own at the time, just a few people around and some rescuers helping someone else a bit further away. She was in a large puddle, trapped from the waist down by concrete and other debris from the collapsed houses. She had been there for almost three days….

When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity….

I gave my film to some photographers who were going back to the airport and had them shipped back to my agent in Paris. Omayra died about three hours after I got there.

The photograph was published on the cover of Paris Match a few days later, titled: “Farewell Omayra, the one we will never forget”. On the inside, the reporter Michel Peyrard traces the ordeal of Armero through the story of the young girl and several other inhabitants. The issue immediately prompted the outrage that the ‘vulture-like’ reporters and the photographers who were there had failed to get her out.

Fournier made the best-known shot of the girl, but other reporters were there (TVE’s Evaristo Canete, Gamma’s Eric Bouvet who lent Fournier spare film and ferried his negatives back to Paris). Fournier won the World Press Photo prize, but questions lingered: In such a situation, wouldn’t it have been better to offer help rather than to take pictures? Is it possible to show the suffering of others without violating their right to have their privacy respected? For Fournier and other journalists, it is of the utmost importance that the public be informed. For others, broadcasting the drama of Omarya’s death was obscene.

— from “Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography”, an exhibition in Bibliothèque Nationale

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0 thoughts on “The Death of Omayra Sanchez

  1. This photo was taken on the 3rd day after the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano erupted, Omayra Sanchez was trapped in debris under water for 60 hours. Frank Fournier took 5 hours drive and 2.5 hours on walk from Bogota to Armero due the lack of roads and accessibility to that remote place. As soon as he reached the town, a Farmer told him about this girl who needed help and took him there. Red Cross rescue workers appealed to the government for a bump to lower the water level and other medical materials, but it didn’t arrive on time. they tried to do everything that they could, but was impossible to take her out with such equipment. all what everyone around could do was talk with her, give some water and comfort.
    Before the Eruption, the Volcano served up a steady menu of minor earthquakes and steam eruptions for 1 year prior the this catastrophe. After a report of the volcanic activity appeared in the Newspaper ” La Patria” in march, by July a scientific commission obtained seismographs from other countries, money was obtained from Unified Nations to help map the Areas that were thought to be at the greatest risk. As Colombia had no equipment or geologists skilled in using such equipment. The resulting report were finished by 7 of October which declared that moderate eruption would produce ” … a 100 percent probability of mud-flows … with great danger for Armero…”. Government officials dismissed the report as “too alarming” and authorities did not want to evacuate people until they were assured of the necessity.
    This foto became an icon and the image of this calamity, has attracted lasting attention in popular poetry, novels, and music. The government of Colombia created the “National Office for Disaster Preparedness” and all Colombian cities were directed to plan for natural disasters.

    1. I happened to be reading another article and I saw Omayr’as picture,and I could’nt beleive my eyes and the tears started flowing. Once I read her story there was nothing anyone could have done for her,and I’m in the health feild. If it wasn’t for the journalist reporting this story I would’nt have discovered it.She was beautiful and brave.Her moms comment was moving because she had to give all her attention to the son who was living. She needs to be remembered and talked about always.She should never be forgotten.

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