The Death of Omayra Sánchez


This picture was taken by Frank Fournier in Columbia on Saturday 16 November 1985, a few days after the eruption of the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. The landslide provoked by the eruption had already killed 24,000 people as the local authorities had taken no preventive measures despite the warnings of vulcanologists. In this natural catastrophe, the young Omayra Sánchez was caught in the town of Armero in debris transported by the mud. For two full days and three nights, rescue workers tried to free her with the whole world following her ordeal on TV or in the papers. The crane and the hydraulic pump that were needed to clear the debris didn’t arrive in time. Omarya’s hips had been injured by metal bars and her legs were trapped. She was exhausted and despite her impressive faith and calm, she died of a heart attack on 16 November.

Fournier himself won the World Press Photo prize in 1986 for this portrait–which reflected his own feeling of powerlessness. Omayra’s agonizing demise, surrounded by journalists and photographers, was followed live on television all over the world, and started a major controversy: in such a situation, wouldn’t it have been better to offer help rather than to take pictures? Is it possible to show the suffering of others without violating their right to have their privacy respected? For the photographers, it is of the utmost importance that the public be informed. For others, broadcasting the drama of Omarya’s death was obscene.

— from “Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography”, an exhibition in Bibliothèque Nationale

43 thoughts on “The Death of Omayra Sánchez

    • I did cry. I only know about it because of a video on youtube about the worlds most beautiful eyes. Her picture was on there and someone had posted a comment about it asking them to remove it because they felt the picture was a rude way to remember her becasue of how she died.
      As soon as I read what they had to say I had to know more about her her image had been burnt into my head. I did as much research on her as I could but I would still like to know more.

      • Hello, I’m from Colombia, I was born in 1990 so I can’t tell you that much about this girl, but my father was near Armero by the day of the catastrphe, He described that day as one of the most shocking days of his life. As he can’t sleep more than 4 hours, by 5 in the morning he is already drinking a coffee and listen to the news on the radio. That day he listened that the town of Armero, didn’t existed anymore; he couldn’t believe it, so he drove to the region. on his way, still far from Armero, his passed by a bridged over the Magdalena river, which waters were bringing such a number of dead bodies that he decided to go back, and just believed it: Armero didn’t exist anymore.
        I went to the region about ten years ago, and there are little kids from the towns nearby who spend their days riding their bicycles and showing tourists the remains of the town. the only thing you still can see are the concrete walls of the local hospital. the rest of the land is nothing else but a cemetery, full of crosses and flowers everywhere. The kids show you what they insist is the hole where Omaira died, but i didn’t really believed they could know the exact location, and that the hole would still be there. While my family and I drove by the place, my mom could not stop crying, and I really didn’t understand why, until I took a geology class and I studied it deeper, saw the pictures, watchedthe videos, and felt the tragedy.
        I’m glad I can’t tell you anymore.

      • I was succeeding in holding my tears back until I saw the video of her saying goodbye to her family, and especially her mother. That’s when I lost it. She was so calm, so collected, so brave, as she gave that heartbreaking, beautiful speech 😦 She was a gorgeous child as well.

  1. This is why I don’t like journalists. They are really just selfish and looking out for their own fame and they pretend that they are concerned about informing others. If they are concerned about informing others then they should help the person first and then let the person tell the story. But it’s really about the journalist and the journalists career, they should stop giving awards for this kind of thing.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you 100%… most…not all, journalists hide behind a veil of hypocrisy… yes, they should stop giving awards for this sort of thing… “the public has to be informed” my a$$!

      ever hear of the Ampatuan massacre? If you watched the entire saga unfold… you’d think only the “journalist” sect were the victims… the jounalist massacre angle was blown out of proportion… I friggin HATE self serving journalists

    • that’s a load of crap. man, I believe that reporters and journalists do care more about the fame most of the time but this guy actually cared. He stayed by her side for days. He talked to her when no one else was listening. youre entitled to your own options about selfishness but in this case I think you’ve been selfish.

    • There was nothing you could do for her she was traped under all sorts of debris. Yes I agree with you about them being selfish but what could he do for her? I mean really they tried for two days and three nights to get her out. She was strong all the way to the end she was only worried about being late to school and missing something important she kept asking the men if they could take her to school. On the last night she told everyone not to worry anymore to go and get some rest if they could…
      I also agree wtih the awards they shouldn’t get something from publishing horrific accidents like this. But if they didn’t publish things like this then how would any of us even know tragic event or her name even?

    • Sorry to reply to such an old comment, but I just have to say that rescue efforts were futile. If the trained rescuers weren’t able to free her, then a journalist wouldn’t have been able to either. Her legs were trapped beneath a concrete slab and without the proper equipment to a) drain the water and then b) lift the slab off of her, the only way they would have been able to free her would involve her having her legs ripped off. Without a doctor on hand, she would have bled to death in a matter of minutes, and if she didn’t bleed to death she would have succumbed to crush syndrome. There was nothing they could do for her and I believe that she knew it, even if they didn’t tell her. They figured that the most humane thing would be to let her go in peace, surrounded by people who cared, rather than bleed to death, in agony of having had her legs ripped off. The equipment that would have helped her eventually did arrive, but she passed several hours later. And thanks to the photographer, Omayra Sanchez will never be forgotten and us folks living in our cushy homes can see the true face of suffering, courage, and beauty.

  2. Everyone on the scene has their respective job. Journalists are probably not trained for rescue efforts. I’m not a journalist nor do I personally know a journalist. But it seems to me a journalist’s job is to tell the story, any story, with the skills they have learned which are of photography so you and I can better live the situation in our mind’s eye. If the picture had not been taken and posted on the internet, you and I would never have known her story, tragic as it is. In this particular instance, with her having been trapped for several days/nights, I would like to believe, if the journalists was capable, he probably did also help her as much as anyone could. I find it hard to believe he just stood in front of her snapping photos endlessly for several days. It seems humans have a morbid curiosity to visualize other humans / animals that are in demise along with other bizarre situations. Otherwise you would have not clicked the link that took you to the photo. IMHO

  3. Why Journalist can’t make sure to spell at least the name of a country right? It’s Colombia, not Columbia.

  4. I just found out about Omayra Sánchez horrible death. It made me cry. I wish something could have been done.

  5. Amazing no matter what…someone will find a way to complain. I think this Journalist did a magnificent job in taking this picture, more than he could have done being one trying to help, to no avail. He is the one who helped her, in the end. Helped the world see what is real. I cried, too. I can see from the pressure it has pushed blood into her eyes, yet she seems calm and peaceful. I am glad she didn’t die like this alone.

  6. The photographer didn’t help because they couldn’t. The whole tragic point was that she was pinned partially under concrete, and they could only release her through amputation … which would have caused her to bleed to death since medical aid was unavailable. They all wanted to help her – including the photographer. She was trapped for three days … he took this photo at the end of that time, hours before she died, to illustrate the need for aid and to underscore the failure of the Columbian government to evacuate people.

  7. Does anybody know how to spell her name correctly?
    The book says it’s Omaira but on the web says she’s called Omayra.
    I really must know.

  8. If it wasn’t for the journalist, none of you would know one iota about the world, let alone your own neighborhood.
    Judging by some of the ignorant comments, it becomes obvious that critical analysis is not being taught in schools today.

    A journalist’s sole responsibility is to inform us of events, tragic or otherwise, that are taking place right now, or as close to realtime as is possible, so that we can then make informed decisions about how to conduct our lives, or attempt at helping others conduct theirs.

    • Touche! There was nothing the journalist could do except perform the single act that has now immortalized Omyra. 25 years down the line, the strength of a 13 year old in the last moments of her life can still be seen, all because a journalist did his duty.

  9. I agree with all of you about the situation with the journalists not helping. Based on the story, the journalist and rescuers tried to help but couldnt. When they tried to pull her out, she said her dead brothers and sisters were holding on to her legs. Along with being stuck, she was also suffering from gangrene. So although they tried to help her, their efforts failed. This is very tragic and should be prevented.

  10. Yeah “catandmouse”: journalists are known for their impressive skills of amputation…. get friggin grip on reality. NOBODY could help her. No journalists, no medics on scene, nobody had the medical know-how to amputate her legs, especially that high up!! Amputation in non-sterile environments have enough risks even with the best of specialists, but in this situation, not only is the victim in a filthy environment, but also under water and gangrenous! Even if a specialist was on the scene, her chances would have still been up in the air. To blame this journalist of being selfish is ludicrous!! He was making sure this girl didn’t die in vain, he made sure that her voice was loud enough to reach the ears of the entire planet, and the entire planet responded with outrage.

  11. ich finde diese Geschichte schlimm das niemand hat helfen können ,ich hab versucht Omayra so darzustellen mit meinen Augen das bild begleitet mich jeden tag wenn ich morgens es betrachte ,es ist schade das man nicht ihr Leben retten konnte .ich hoffe das durch die fehler auch die Behörden lernen und bei ähnlichen dramatischen Ereignissen sich anders verhalten

  12. everyone is saying that the photographers and reporters are heartless should have helped, but the fact is that they couldn’t have helped. her legs were trapped and they couldn’t help pull her out, they had to wait for a pump to pump the water out but when the pump arrived it was broken and they couldn’t do anything about it. there were rescuers there and everything but she was trapped and they couldn’t do anything other than be there for her.
    in a way they did help, because they helped raise awareness and they were there to reassure her so you can’t blame them for her death

  13. Just found out about the story of Omayra and I cannot blame the journalist who was there with the rescue team and they couldnt do anything to help her just reassure her.the picture is just full of messages … I still cant believe how strong she was and she still thugh 🙂 . R.I.P omayra

  14. i know he wasn’t trained but there was more than one person filming. I just feel like he could have like done something. I just idk I feel like a lot of times people do less than they are capable of.

    BUT i do respect him for immortalizing this. I just believe honestly he could have done more than taken a picture. BUT it is so great that he did that. (please don’t attack me. I just learned about his.)

  15. I recently have read a short story about omayra in my english class. Honestly, I cried all the way through. To think that one girl could possibly has such a huge impact on the world is unbelievable. While I do stand by the opinion that media could have done more to help, there is no need to fight about it people, would she really want to be remembered like this?

  16. I couldn’t say media didn’t do anything for help. Because of the poor facilities in the region,there was no enough help reached to omayra. At the same time beacuse of the same media only, we all know about omayra.

  17. I’m doing an essay right now on Omayra Sanchez. The reporter wasn’t selfish, you know. He actually did care, but some of you pathetic ingrates probably won’t listen to a person like me just because I called you ingrates.

    • Probably. Sometimes it’s difficult for people who are doers to understand observers who do nothing. Pity isn’t action. How can you watch suffering without suffering yourself? What did she do everything in your power to help that person?

  18. A child beyond help. A chilling reminder that despite all our advances in technology at the time, we are still unable to save single life given 3 days of entrapment.
    Forcing the entire world to feel powerless, against the power of nature. Her expression exudes courage in the face of death, yet still the viewer is aware of the only inevitable outcome.
    The image Appalled most audiences but highlighted an integral flaw in the world today. However In my personal opinion I do not believe the blame should be passed on to the photographer but instead society as a whole. Thrown into such a helpless situation the most respectful action was to immortalise her message

  19. This photo was taken on the 3rd day after the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano erupted, Omayra Sanchez was trapped in debris under water for 60 hours. Frank Fournier took 5 hours drive and 2.5 hours on walk from Bogota to Armero due the lack of roads and accessibility to that remote place. As soon as he reached the town, a Farmer told him about this girl who needed help and took him there. Red Cross rescue workers appealed to the government for a bump to lower the water level and other medical materials, but it didn’t arrive on time. they tried to do everything that they could, but was impossible to take her out with such equipment. all what everyone around could do was talk with her, give some water and comfort.
    Before the Eruption, the Volcano served up a steady menu of minor earthquakes and steam eruptions for 1 year prior the this catastrophe. After a report of the volcanic activity appeared in the Newspaper ” La Patria” in march, by July a scientific commission obtained seismographs from other countries, money was obtained from Unified Nations to help map the Areas that were thought to be at the greatest risk. As Colombia had no equipment or geologists skilled in using such equipment. The resulting report were finished by 7 of October which declared that moderate eruption would produce ” … a 100 percent probability of mud-flows … with great danger for Armero…”. Government officials dismissed the report as “too alarming” and authorities did not want to evacuate people until they were assured of the necessity.
    This foto became an icon and the image of this calamity, has attracted lasting attention in popular poetry, novels, and music. The government of Colombia created the “National Office for Disaster Preparedness” and all Colombian cities were directed to plan for natural disasters.

    • I happened to be reading another article and I saw Omayr’as picture,and I could’nt beleive my eyes and the tears started flowing. Once I read her story there was nothing anyone could have done for her,and I’m in the health feild. If it wasn’t for the journalist reporting this story I would’nt have discovered it.She was beautiful and brave.Her moms comment was moving because she had to give all her attention to the son who was living. She needs to be remembered and talked about always.She should never be forgotten.

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