Aged 13, Omaira Sánchez captured the world’s attention as she became the face of the Armero tragedy. Over the course of three days, rescue crews tried, but eventually failed, to release her from trapped debris. She died on November 16th, 1985. Her remains were never located. In the final hours of her life, she was interviewed by reporters and filmed by television crews. They were struck by her courage, her faith and her maturity in the face of death. Frank Fournier’s portrait of Omaira won the 1986 World Press Photo of the Year.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of Omaira’s death upon many Colombians. She has become a saintly figure, said to protect other children, and the place of her death has attracted thousands of mourners and pilgrims. Several, competing graves have been erected to demarcate the exact site at which she was buried. Visitors to these monuments bring plaques, rosary beads, flowers, dolls, and other gifts. They ask miracles of Omaira, and show their appreciation with these offerings. You can learn about one of the miracles here.
Omaira was not the only child to go missing in the disaster. After the landslide, during chaotic rescue efforts, many children whose parents were presumed dead were taken by authorities and adopted by new families. In the years since the disaster, it has come to light that some of these children’s parents had survived. The Colombian state did not keep comprehensive records of the missing children. Local NGOs such as Armando Armero use DNA tests in efforts to reunite separated families. You can hear more about the lost children on NPR’s programme, Radio Ambulante.