A Colombian Volcano's Wrath Destroys a Town, Leaving the Survivors with Only Their Grief

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Awakened by the roar of destruction bearing down on them, a fortunate few fled through the darkness to a hilltop cemetery, where they watched in horror as a torrent of mud, rocks and trees swept away their place in the world. The living found refuge among the dead, while the once-thriving Colombian town of Armero became a grave for more than 20,000 people. Survivors, plastered in ashen muck, emerged from the ooze looking like the walking ghosts of Pompeii, the Roman city razed in the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Images of devastation, seen only weeks before when an earthquake killed 20,000 in Mexico City, once again filled the globe's TV screens and newspapers. Helicopters chopped to the rescue.

Italian and American volcanologists had warned Colombian authorities that sleeping Nevado del Ruiz was due to wake, just as it had last in 1845. Since the mountain rumbled to life in minor eruptions last September, government officials had readied evacuation plans, even plotting likely courses of mud slides. But the inevitable came too soon. The living earth, working on its own geologic time, determined the hour. The Nazca plate, part of the planetary crust that forms the Pacific basin, had shouldered under the mantle of the South American continent, ultimately driving molten rock upward to vent from Nevado del Ruiz's snowcapped peak. As fire met ice, the deluge was unleashed.

The columns of survivors straggling from Armero (pop. about 22,500) recalled the victims of Hiroshima fleeing their ruined city. Among the miracles, children—tiny arks of life—bobbed to safety. One baby was found in the arms of its dead parents, another was delivered by its mother's rescuers. Having only recently been bled by a pitched battle with leftist guerrillas, who had seized Bogota's Palace of Justice, Colombia now had a deeper wound to heal. "Time and time again we are visited by tragedy," said President Belisario Betancur Cuartas. "But with the help of God, we will overcome."

From Our Partners