On November 13, 1985 there was the Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado Del Ruiz. Ash blanketed the surrounding areas including the town of Armero. The volcano also sent huge mudslides of volcanic ash that swept the countryside around the volcano burying towns and villages under meters of mud. One victim trapped in the carnage was Omayra Sanchez. She was photographed by Frank Fournier hours before her death.
Before the photo
In the Sahtander district of Armero, Colombia Omayra Sanchez sat with her parents, her brother and an aunt, Maria Adela Garzón in their house wondering about the ash raining down. With a loud crash tons of volcanic ash and water, that had mixed together to create a thick mud, slammed into the town. When the mudslide hit the home of 13-year-old Omayra Sanchez it buried her up to her waist in concrete debris from her own home and submerged her up to her neck in freezing water. Due to lack of supplies, rescuers were unable to free her and for three days she sat in the water waiting for help. Reporters arrived and photographed her throughout her ordeal bravely giving interviews while people vainly tried to help her.
Taking the photo
Frank Fournier was sent to cover the eruption and he set out to report on the disaster traveling by car for five hours and then walking for two and half hours before arriving on the scene. He remembers that
I reached the town of Ameroyo at dawn about three days after the explosion. 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…
I could hear people screaming for help and then silence – an eerie silence. It was very haunting. There were a few helicopters, some that had been loaned by an oil company, trying to rescue people.
Then there was this little girl and people were powerless to help her. The rescuers kept coming back to her, local farmers and some people who had some medical aid. They tried to comfort her.
When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going.
By this stage, Omayra was drifting in and out of consciousness. She even asked me if I could take her to school because she was worried that she would be late.
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.
When Fournier’s Paris Match magazine published the photo a few days later it caused outrage when it was learned that Fournier didn’t or couldn’t help the girl. Called a vulture he welcomed the controversy as it drew attention to the disaster:
I felt the story was important for me to report and I was happier that there was some reaction; it would have been worse if people had not cared about it…
I believe the photo helped raise money from around the world in aid and helped highlight the irresponsibility and lack of courage of the country’s leaders. There was an obvious lack of leadership.
Born in 1948 at Saint-Sever France Frank Fournier was the son of a surgeon and actually studied medicine for four years before becoming a photographer. He moved to America and in New York worked in the office of Contact Press Images for a few years before becoming a staff photographer in 1982. He won the 1986 World Press Photo award for his picture of Sanchez
Her father was killed under the rubble of the house but her mother and brother were able to escape. Omayra’s mother commented, “I will live for my son, who only lost a finger.” She expressed her feelings about Omayra’s death. “It is horrible, but we have to think about the living.” The eruption killed over 25,000 people.