The Voice of Armero: A Volcano's Message to the World
If everything in the Universe is connected, contains, within it, something of what is beyond it, is a part of the same thing, a doorway to everything else that exists - as some mystic philosophers maintain - then it should not, perhaps, be surprising that one event, isolated from most of us, and probably unknown to almost as many, nonetheless touches all of us, mirroring our present, and the dark future that awaits us if we do not recognize ourselves in its disaster, if we cannot find our life reflected in its death.
November 13, 1985 was an ordinary day for most of us. But for the people of the Colombian town of Armero, long accustomed to life and love and boredom and hope beneath the shadow of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, it was the day of becoming a tragedy.
Of course, it is never 100% safe to live within the striking range of an active volcano, and yet, many thousands of people do it all across the world. In the case of Armero, built atop the mineral-enriched soil produced by a previous eruption in 1845, the fertile farmland had been too great a temptation to resist in a country where land and life could never be taken for granted, and eventually given rise to a prosperous town, nourished by the residue of the last disaster. People went about their lives. They fell in love like the rest of us, had their quarrels, worries and dreams, listened to music, laughed, talked, went to school, worked, raised children.
In November 1984, one year before the fatal night, the volcano, asleep for more than a century, began to show signs of waking up, releasing significant emissions of sulfur gas into the skies above Armero. Activity continued in the months thereafter and seismologists began to grow alarmed, but resources were not available to investigate the situation in a more thorough and timely manner. In September 1985, a dramatic eruption of steam, hissing up from deep within the volcano’s crater for seven straight hours, triggered off a mudflow (lahar), which panicked the town of Manizales, situated on the opposite side of the volcano from Armero. The threat to this town of 350,000 led to additional resources being committed to the surveillance of the volcano, and to the preparation of emergency plans for dealing with the possibility of a full-scale eruption.
However, at this point, caution and concerns over economic consequences took over. Local business and political leaders were afraid that too many warnings about the dangers of the volcano could hurt business, lead to a damaging exodus of people from the region, a drying-up of investments, and the collapse of property values. A geological analysis of the zone, some ten days later, which was not influenced by this pressure, reassured civic leaders that Manizales was not in danger of experiencing a major catastrophe should the volcano erupt in force. But the report did not exclude Armero, on the opposite side of the volcano, beside the Lagunillas River, from danger; and, in fact, on October 7, INGEOMINAS, the Colombian Geology and Mines Bureau, issued a "hazard map" suggesting that that town would, indeed, be at risk in the event of a new eruption. The report was fiercely criticized by civic leaders for being alarmist and potentially damaging to the local economy. Many people in Armero, who had been convinced by the previous report from Manizales that their town was in no danger, either - an interpretation favored by some local authorities - were surprised by this new report, but reassured that they would have two hours to escape from their town, to high ground a mile away, in the event of an emergency. Now, the fate of the town, should a full-scale crisis unfold, came to hinge upon the alertness of the volcanologists observing the volcano, the judgment of the authorities responsible for acting upon the information which they received and ordering an evacuation, and the local civic capacity to get the message out to the people and oversee the flight to safety. It was a plan deemed reasonable and adequate, but at the moment of being put to the test, most tragically, it broke down, destroyed by its numerous weaknesses.
Around 3 PM on November 13 - the final day for so many of the innocents of Armero - the volcano began to shake and to emit ash. Observers continued to watch the volcano, but did not know which way it would go. At this time, no one wanted to order an evacuation of this town of 29,000, because driving everyone out of their homes and forcing them to flee for nothing - creating such a great disruption and inconvenience as the result of a false alarm - would thoroughly discredit authorities, perhaps resulting in injuries and certainly in economic losses and increased emergency costs, besides attaching an unwanted, heightened aura of danger to the region - a real long-term problem.
And so, the civic leaders waited. For six hours, the volcano continued to threaten, but the people were reassured over the radio, and convinced to stay.
Then, shortly after 9 PM, the eruption switched gears, reaching a new level of violence and intensity. Fiery magma surged upwards from within the volcano’s depths, and burning ash flew out; the heat of this new activity melted large tracts of the snow fields which crowned the mountain’s high peak. And suddenly, the hot waters began to roll down the volcano’s slopes, carrying off huge volumes of mud in their 100 mph descent downwards, pouring into the Azufrado and Lagunillas Rivers, and beginning the fatal rush of mud, floodwaters, and volcanic debris which would eventually consume the unsuspecting town of Armero.
By 10:30 PM, a minor lahar, a precursor of the monster one headed towards Armero, had already killed 1100 people in the village of Chinchina, in the space of ten minutes. Only at this time did civil authorities finally cross the barrier of their fears of raising a false alarm, and sound the long overdue order for Armero to be evacuated. But by this time, much of the local power system had been knocked out, and they were unable to communicate effectively with the volcano’s prime target.
At 11:35 PM, on the night of November 13, the lahar roared into Armero, accompanied by a deafening sound of force and movement. From its original height of 130 feet, and its amazing initial speed of descent, the mudflow fell to a height of 30 feet and a speed of 25 mph as it spread out over the environs of Armero, for all the good that irrelevant diminishment of force did anyone. Panicked citizens in the streets, fleeing for higher ground, were overtaken, swept away, and drowned in the mud, even killed by the impact of the flow, brutalized by its huge mass, filled with rocks and wreckage. Those who clung to the refuge of their homes were overcome, also, as their homes were crushed, the walls knocked down - even concrete walls - killed by the collapse of their shelters, buried alive. Within two hours, Nature in her most terrible manifestation, had wiped Armero from the map, turned it into a place no one would ever go to, or call their home, again. 21,000 lives, out of a population of 29,000, had been snuffed out, destroyed with only a few moments, if that, to say goodbye, to confront their terror and desperation, and rise above it or be consumed by it, to face death, to leave behind all the beautiful expectations, illusions, and tomorrows imbedded in their hearts, and in their entran~as (insides). It was not a kind way to die, nor a fair way to die.
Meanwhile, of those who survived, many survived only to die slowly, like Jesus hanging on the cross, buried up to their necks in mud, at one of the low points of the death flow. Helicopters, flying overhead like angels who could not descend, saw them - but no one could rescue them, for the mud, like quicksand, offered nothing to stand upon, no way to land a work crew or mount a rescue effort. What did the passing of these helicopters sound like to the trapped and doomed? Did it ease their death with hope, or embitter it with a sense of betrayal and abandonment?
Those who were pulled from the mud - those still accessible to helicopters and rescuers, or else those who had somehow left early enough, from the outer limits of the volcano’s reach - lived only as the result of accidents, and the inexplicable reprieves of Fate.
Of course, Armero’s significance stems, first and foremost, from its private truth, its very personal disaster, and the death and suffering of its people, forever deserving of our prayers. May God comfort and hold them in His loving arms, and soothe them with the understanding we do not yet have, being unable to comprehend a calamity of such magnitude.
And yet - there is much more to Armero than this, much more than its own mute, instantaneous disappearance, much more than its sudden unwilling departure from our world, much more than its seventeen years of silence. There are waves of meaning that spread outwards from the day of its death, into our own times and sense of safety - waves of meaning that are its final legacy, its final product, its final chance to survive, to remain a part of our world. Waves of meaning, that seek our mouths to shape them into words: words able to shape a world, that is not so different from what it was. This is Armero trying to speak to us, Armero’s voice. And in honor of its dead, I have given it this page to speak to you:
People of the earth, I am Armero, we are Armero, the gone loved place, the multitudes turned into eternal brothers, united by the shared night of our extinction.
People of the earth, we had much to live for, no reason to give up life, which we knew how to use. And sweet were the nights in Atlantis, filled with music and hope, and love, and lost love, which is how the passion of love returns to us. O you who now live, what parties you missed! What friends you never met! What joys, hidden beneath the clothes of our star-filled nights, our life-soaked nights, our nights of Atlantis.
And then came the moment when the black jokes that kept the volcano distant, ceased to be jokes; and the thundering flood roared into our streets, and our world was turned into a place no nightmare has ever reached. And love was overpowered by death; and we called out to God, in the chaos, but it seemed He did not hear, not the innocent cries of children, nor the piercing cries of their mothers; and some kept calling to Him to the end, while others wondered what sin it was we had committed, to be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorra; while a few brave souls faced their last moment on the earth warning anyone who would listen that God did not exist!
People of the earth, their bitterness was brave, but, even so, God does exist. We are here to tell you there are not easy answers. That we have barely touched the surface of the mystery, which is deeper than the sea. And that God’s care is strange to us, yet we trust in His ways, through the pain, we feel His love, even within our doubt.
People of the earth, our death was not all made perfect, it was not all made right, by the light that is beyond death. The speed, the pain was too much, it left its deep mark, and many that are dead remain mourning the dead, some still seeking the old lives they lost, not the new lives that are waiting for them. There are wanderers and ghosts, still looking for their homes, too stunned to find God’s new home in the light; souls lost in the darkness of the final night, too in love with the beauty that was ripped from them to discover the beauty hiding in its absence. While even in Heaven, there are wounded souls who will not yet speak to God. Yet, even so, and in spite of that - and even without a simple answer - we can tell you this, tonight: that our death was a great sacrifice, a gift of our lives, given to you; our town for your world; our 21,000 lives for your billions of lives. And though it was nearly unbearable, and though many’s souls were harmed for all time, we made this sacrifice. That Armero may be the place, the people, that save the earth.
No, people of the earth, we were not sinners, not more than you, not more than anyone. We were ordinary people, except that God let the secret love contained in all of us, come out of us, He let us give you this gift, in exchange for our lives.
People of the earth, listen well. Use our death, and free us! Understand that Armero is the world, and that we are you!
And you ask: why do people live in the shadow of a volcano? And our answer to you is that you live in the shadow of a volcano - the volcano of your anger, your aggression, your greed, and your pride, not yet understood, not yet conquered - the volcano of your world filled with weapons, some powerful enough to destroy your town, which is called the earth. You ask why people live beneath the slopes of a volcano that could erupt at any moment; and we say that that is a question for you to answer.
And we have also heard some demand to know: How could they have waited for so long to evacuate the town, how could they have waited to the last possible moment to leave for safety when an eruption was imminent? And we say to you that knowledge is one thing, and will is another. Acting with foresight carries a price, for it means you must endure suffering and hardship when everything still seems well; which, to many, seems like jumping into a river to swim while you still have a boat. And as the heart clings to what it knows, so the mind, seduced by the heart’s comforts and fears, betrays itself and degrades the inevitable into a myth.
And again, as in the saying, "Once a thief, always a thief", so a man who steals once, and is lucky enough to avoid capture, does not stop there, saying, "I have done it, and got what I needed." Instead, he says, "If I did it once, I can do it again", until his first crime evolves from a desperate aberration into a way of life, breeding confidence each time he succeeds: a mentality of invulnerability, which is the surest path to prison and death. In the same way, the thief who steals clarity from his own mind once, and gets away with it, only continues stealing, until he ceases to believe in logic, altogether. Instead, he lives in his dream world, behind a fragile, locked door, until the world ends.
And we say to you, world, that you have been warned, that an eruption is imminent. You are destroying the atmosphere, the weather, the air, the sea, the forests and lands of the earth. It is well-known. It is time to evacuate the lifestyle that is leading to this catastrophe, to the collapse of an entire planet! Behold us, world, we gave ourselves for you, we left the sweetness of our lives to become a sacred microcosm, to teach you this lesson, the danger of delay! Respect our sacrifice! For you it is 3 PM on the 13th of November. Do not delay!
And then, of course, there are those who merely say, "God, God, who can understand Him? How could he be so cruel to us, use Nature in such an awful way, to destroy the innocent, the blameless?" And we tell you, it was a hard path. But in mourning for us, and lamenting, do not hide from yourselves! Do not spend all your compassion upon the earth’s natural disasters, and leave none for the victims of what you have done! Do not forget the earthquakes made by your bombs, that shake cities to the ground and bury babies. Do not forget the volcanic eruptions from your guns, the fires inside the barrels that steal lives. Do not forget the mudslide of poverty, that crashes from the mountain of the rich down upon the dwellings of the poor - the mudslide of exhaustion, hopelessness, and despair which consumes the earth.
Of God’s plan, we know but a little, and Nature’s power is beyond our command; but the power that you wield is at your command: the power of life and death over millions, over many more than those who live beneath Nature’s volcanoes and above Nature’s earthquakes. And we tell you: use that power to give life, not take it! Turn your compassion from us, the ones you could not help, but who you chose to love to prove you could love, towards the ones who are living on your slopes, today, in your shadow, beneath your power, and let them live! There is very little in this world more precious than life, and what little there is that is more precious than life, reveres life! To all who have the power to kill, we say these words, as messengers of God, consecrated by our hard death.
May the tears you shed for us, which we thank you for, be given, now, to others - be shed, in advance, for the innocent who are within your gun sights. May you mourn for them while they are still alive, and thus, find a way of sparing them, and living together with them.
And this - this is our sacred message to you, the force of our life that the tons of mud could not bury, only raise to a higher level. This is our voice - the voice of Armero, a town that is also your world.
Thank you, writer of this page, for letting us come through you. Julia thanks you, and all the others also thank you. Your dream was real - weren’t there signs?
This is the voice of Armero. The voice of Armero! Respect us! Live!
Will we listen to this voice, I wonder, and follow the lesson of Armero out of the darkness we have created?
SOURCES: Volcano Cowboys, Dick Thompson.
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