“We must stop and find time to thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” – John F. Kennedy
by Kendall F. Person
On November 12, 1985, she was 13 years old, so most likely in middle school, about the 8th grade, I assume. She and her brother Alvaro, lived in the prosperous agricultural region of Tolima in the city of Armero, with their parents Álvaro Enrique & Maria Aleida, along with her Aunt Maria Adela. There was some concern among the elders, about Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano that last erupted 140 years before, as it was starting to make noise. But at 13 and an only girl, Omayra Sánchez Garzón was probably more concerned about her mother who had traveled 100 miles southeast to Bogota on business, but she made it home before the morn. And no doubt, there was some comfort blanketing the villages that lived in the volcano’s shadow, for the federal government had sent experts to monitor the activity and establish – I assume – precautions for the citizenry, as an eruption was imminent, for erupt is what volcanoes do.
On November 6th – one week before the world would be introduced to Omayra – a beautiful and courageous teenage girl – a guerilla organization known as M-19 would storm The Palace of Justice in Bogota, by deadly force. They seized the chambers, capturing all justices of the Colombia Supreme Court and held over 300 hostages, in a two-day seige, that demoralized the country, and depleted its resolve, leaving the calvary running on fumes, just when Omayra would need them most.
On day two in Bogota, the order came from the top. Led by General Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, commander of the Thirteenth Army Brigade, the government would counter attack in what became one of the bloodiest shootouts in Colombia’s maiden voyage in domestic terrorism. When the Army finally retook the building, over a hundred people including 11 Supreme Court Justices were dead. Before the nation could sort through what happened, one hundred miles northwest, the volcano erupted. It was not the initial explosion, but the combination of mud, rock and lava, that laid waste to 85% of the city of Armero, killed 21,000 of its 29,000 residents, and trapped 13 year old Omayra Sanchez Garzon under hardened sediment, that the would be rescuers could not cut through. For 60 hours she held on, dazzling the world with her courage and charm. But before her departure – with peace and grace – she told her supporters to go home and rest. And the arrival of death came soon after.
As it turns out, it was not her choice alone to give up the ghost. Bogota was still in a state of shock from the Palace of Justice massacre and was unable to immediately regroup; to respond to a SOS, thereby would be survivors perished under blankets of mud. On the ground, the region did not own the type of machine needed to break through the lahar and were helpless, so they talk and fed Omayra. But even if she had been freed, her broken legs were caught under a door made of bricks, with her aunt’s arms clutched tightly around her legs, leading medical personnel to the realization, they were not equipped to deal with a double amputation. So they announced to her mother, a recent widow herself, that it was best to let her die.
What if the resources used to fight and argue with one another, not just the money, but the time and the brain power and the shared imagination of united countrymen, had been put forward in planning for a natural disaster, that they always knew one day would come? Perhaps, it would not have ended in a double national tragedy, both of epic proportions. And maybe if the arrival of help had come in time, Omayra Sanchez Garzon’s departure would not have been so breathtakingly tragic at only 13 years old.
So what do we do upon the arrival of Thanksgiving Day? Do elevate our hearts above all else and give a dollar to a poor or lost or lonely soul? Do we drop to our knees and thank our Higher Power or the trees for what we have accomplished? Or do we seek out to please me, myself and I like any other day? An individual choice that affects the world.
Happy Thanksgiving and may our choice shine a light.
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