It was shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, and Pilot Manuel Cervero was nearly home. Cervero was flying a DC-8 cargo jet from Miami to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, a sprawling city of 5 million in the Andes. The plane was cruising at 24,000 ft., 110 miles or ten minutes from El Dorado International Airport. Then, without warning, Cervero and his aircraft ran afoul of one of nature's most destructive phenomena.
"First came a reddish illumination that shot up to about 26,000 ft.," the pilot recalled. "Then came a shower of ash that covered us and left me without visibility. The cockpit filled with smoke and heat and the smell of sulfur." The blast charred the nose of the DC-8 and turned the aircraft's windows white. Flying only on instruments, Cervero diverted the plane to the city of Cali, 20 minutes from Bogotá. Making his final approach, the pilot said, he had to push open one of the cockpit's side windows in order to catch a glimpse of the airport's runway lights. He landed safely.
Cervero did not at first know that he had been flying 7,000 ft. above a 17,716-ft.-high, long-dormant volcano known as Nevado del Ruiz at the exact moment when it came thunderously alive. Within hours, that rebirth had left upwards of 20,000 people dead or missing in a steaming, mile-wide avalanche of gray ash and mud. Thousands more were injured, orphaned and homeless. The Colombian town of Armero (pop. about 22,500) had virtually disappeared. At week's end a huge cloud of ash, rising as high as 45,000 ft., hung dramatically over the area. The pall obscured the sun and caused the normal afternoon temperature of 77° F to drop to about 55° F. As rescuers hunted frantically amid the soupy devastation for mud-covered survivors, it was soon clear that Nevado del Ruiz would rate as one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in all of recorded history, roughly equivalent to the A.D. 79 explosion of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The reawakening of Nevado del Ruiz was the second cataclysm to strike Latin America in two months. In Mexico, the government of President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado was still coping painfully with the aftermath of the Sept. 19 earthquake, which left as many as 20,000 dead and, by some estimates, up to 150,000 homeless. Colombia's volcanic catastrophe seemed especially poignant in a country that has been plagued since World War II by a seemingly endless series of man-made travails: civil war, leftist terrorism and battles with a powerful and entrenched drug mafia. Said Colombian President Belisario Betancur Cuartas as he personally directed rescue operations last week: "Time and time again we are visited by tragedy. But with the help of God we will overcome."
The eruption came at a particularly bad time for Betancur. In the days before the disaster, he had been under heavy political attack for his Nov. 6 decision to send army troops against M-19 guerrillas who had taken over Bogotá's Palace of Justice. The spectacular and bloody assault horrified television viewers around the world and left nearly 100 dead, including eleven Colombian Supreme Court Justices.