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Colombia's Plain of Death : Volcano Survivors Angry, Bitter Over Slow Recovery

March 16, 1986|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

ARMERO, Colombia — The volcanic mud that engulfed Armero last November has hardened into a dusty gray wasteland, fringed with the debris of disaster. Scattered over the desolate expanse of hardpan are dozens of small white crosses.

It is a strange and forbidding place, a dark plain of death, but not entirely lifeless. Gravediggers search for bodies, and there are many to be found. Scavengers comb the rubble at the edges of the dried mud for anything that might be worth a few pesos. The curious come to see it, and survivors come back for one more look.

Each cross bears the name of a person who died and the date of the disaster: Nov. 13, 1985.

Day of Eruption

That was the day the volcano Nevado del Ruiz erupted, melting huge quantities of glacial ice at its 17,716-foot peak. The meltwater brought a late-night torrent of mud cascading down the steep course of the Lagunilla River, and it buried all but a small part of Armero, a farm center at the mouth of the river's canyon.

The official death toll was 23,080, but the figure is approximate. Most of the dead are still entombed under the hardened mud.

Some roads through Armero have been plowed open to permit travel between neighboring towns and villages. Large signs warn that the area is dangerous because of the possibility of new avalanches and contamination.

Signs Offer Warnings

Signs warn: "It Is Strictly Prohibited to Walk Around or Take Out Objects Without Written Permission" and "Vehicles in Transit Should Pass Through Armero Without Stopping or Slowing Traffic" and "Persons Who Violate These Instructions Will Be Detained."

On a recent afternoon, several vehicles were stopped at Armero, and about a dozen people could be seen around the somber landscape. Octavio Rios, 52, stopped near one edge of the gray surface and looked down. Underneath, he said, was his home.

"I lost my wife," he said. "She is right around here."

Armero, before it disappeared, enjoyed considerable prosperity by rural Colombian standards, and its buried wealth is now legend.

Tales of Wealth

"This has been a gold mine," Rios said. "There are people who have gotten rich uncovering strongboxes."

A bare-chested man, who gave his name as Carlos Alape and his age as 23, said that he, too, had heard of treasure in strongboxes but had not found any on his frequent trips to Armero.

A scavenger, he was looking for scrap aluminum, refrigerator parts or roofing material. "It's the most valuable thing to take," said Alape, who sells what he finds to a dealer in nearby Venadillo, his hometown.

'A Lot of Bodies'

"Back over there are a lot of bodies," he said, pointing to an area where the avalanche destroyed a row of houses. They were on high ground and not completely buried, and outside one that was torn in half a skull and bones rested against a wall.

"Ay, Dios," Ana de Marin said when she saw the bones. She and her husband had come to Armero from Bogota, out of curiosity. "It is a thing that really makes me remember my God," she said. "Ay, Dios."

Maj. Rafael Ruiz, the military mayor of Armero, hopes to make the place more presentable by July. That is when Pope John Paul II is scheduled to visit Colombia, and he is expected to come to the disaster site.

Ruiz said that 600 acres of dried mud will be planted with grass and trees. A chapel will be built.

'Park of Hope'

"It is already, by decree, a cemetery park," he said. "It is called the National Park of Hope."

Ruiz, whose civilian predecessor died in Armero, has an office about five miles away in the town of Guayabal. He is trying to complete the removal of exposed bodies from the park, and he said he is paying 14 gravediggers about a dollar for each body they find and bury.

Asked how many bodies had been buried, he consulted a ledger and said: "I keep a daily account. . . . Let's see . . . 4,200, more or less."

Ruiz estimated that the job of burying the unidentified bodies will be finished by the end of March. The gravediggers find 60 to 70 every day, he said.

For a while, people caught scavenging or looting were ordered to bury bodies as punishment. But the district governor stopped that, Ruiz said, "because it was not contemplated in the statutes."

No Control Over Looters

Because he does not have a jail, he said, there is little he can do about the looters, the valancheros.

Another problem has been the issuing of identification cards for refugees. Demand is brisk. Ruiz said the town at one time had 38,000 people, including temporary visitors, and he estimates that 24,000 to 26,000 died. But he has issued identification cards to about 30,000.

He said that people who had families or property in Armero are entitled to cards even though they did not live there at the time of the disaster. And he acknowledged that many poor Colombians, looking to benefit from refugee aid, have falsified applications for the cards.

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