A volcano that had been rumbling to life for months erupted early today, melting its snowcap and sending down torrents of water, mud and blazing volcanic ash that buried four sleeping towns with a total population of 70,000. Early estimates of the death toll ranged up to 20,000.
The Langunilla River became a rushing wall of mud that destroyed at least 85% of Armero, a coffee-farming Andes mountain town of 50,000 people 30 miles from the Nevado del Ruiz volcano and 105 miles northwest of Bogota.
"Armero doesn't exist anymore," Red Cross rescue worker Fernando Duque said in an interview from the scene on Todelar radio.
A Civil Defense spokesman, Maj. Hugo Ardila, told a midday news conference in Bogota that about 10,000 people had been found alive in Armero up to that time.
One of them, Edeliberto Nieto, told IRCN radio: "We heard a frightening noise, and then a blast of wind hit us, and we saw fire falling from the sky. It was horrible, so horrible! My wife was killed. My mother was killed. My little girl, who would have been 4 years old tomorrow, died. One of my sisters was killed and one of my little nephews."
Ash Burned His Feet
He said there was so much fiery ash in the street that it "burned my feet."
President Belisario Betancur, still shaken by a rebel assault on the Palace of Justice nine days ago in which nearly 100 people died, flew over the region today and put himself in command of relief operations, officials said.
Ambulances and rescue workers had trouble reaching the town because the avalanche of mud destroyed the highway and five bridges leading to it, Caracol radio said, quoting Civil Defense workers.
"Some of the bodies had been under mud for six hours when we dug them out. . . , and we weren't even able to tell if they were men or women. They were just a mass of gray," Duque said.
There was no late, accurate count on the number of bodies recovered.
"The mass of mud is up to five yards high in some areas. Some people were able to escape and climb over walls that weren't covered by the avalanche and were rescued with the help of ropes and horses," said Paul Ramirez, a reporter for Todelar who was among the first to reach the scene.
'An Immense Tragedy'
"Rescue workers are talking about 20,000 dead," Red Cross director Artemo Franco said in an interview with Caracol. "It is an immense tragedy."
"Eighty-five percent of (Armero) is destroyed, and we estimate there are 15,000 deaths," Gov. Eduardo Alzate of Tolima state, which includes Armero, said on Caracol radio.
Heavy rains began about the time the 15,500-foot mountain erupted, gorging the river with more extra inches of water, the radio said.
Fernando Rivera, a crop-dusting pilot who flew over the devastated area, said the mud avalanche also destroyed the villages of Santuario, Carmelo and Pindalito, whose total population is about 20,000.
He said on Caracol that the mud buried farmhouses for 25 miles along the river.
"Some survivors were clinging to trees they had climbed, some were on roofs that weren't reached by the mud, and even some (were) in a cemetery that had a cement wall around it and that the mud did not knock down," Rivera said.
'All You Can See Are Roofs'
"There's nothing but a sea of mud in Armero. All you can see are the roofs of the houses in parts of the town."
The town's tallest building is the Catholic cathedral, whose steeple rises about three stories. Most buildings are of one story, with a few of two stories, and nearly all are made of concrete blocks.
Other towns along the Langunilla were closer to the volcano but apparently were spared because they sit on hills.
Chinchina, which has a population of about 70,000 and is only six miles from the base of Nevado del Ruiz, escaped major damage, but some houses on the hillside below the town were destroyed.
Various reports said that the volcano started spewing ash and smoke at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and that the mud hit Armero about three hours later.
An Avianca jetliner arriving from Miami could not land at the Bogota airport shortly before midnight Wednesday because of smoke from the volcano.
Cabin Filled With Smoke
"Smoke was reaching us at 26,000 feet," pilot Fernando Cervera told Caracol. "The cabin of the plane was filled with smoke and I had to ask the passengers to use oxygen masks. The flames that shot out of the volcano were huge."
He continued on to Cali, 25 minutes from Bogota.
There were reports of ash being blown 250 miles northeast and east of Bogota.
Dr. Darrell Herd, deputy chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Office of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Engineering in Reston, Va., said that the volcano spewed steam and ash Sept. 11 and that there has been almost continuous activity since that time.
Series of Earthquakes
Nevado del Ruiz reawakened at the end of last year, with a series of strong earthquakes Dec. 22, and after that it averaged about 35 earthquakes a month.
Herd said the activity was similar to the March and April, 1980, activity at Mt. St. Helens in Washington state before the catastrophic eruption of May 18, 1980. As Herd put it, the eruptions at Nevado del Ruiz before now have been "literally clearing out the volcano's throat," by spewing old ash.
Nevado del Ruiz is the northernmost active volcano of the Andes. The last major eruption, seen from a distance by Spanish explorers in 1595, sent avalanches of mud into the same river valleys.