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Colombia Girl’s Letter Foretold Volcano’s Peril

Times Staff Writer

When the little girl from Armero, Colombia, wrote to her American friends in October, she expressed her affection, told of her “many friends at school” and said she liked Sunday school “for its teachings, which are good about Jesus.”

Then 6-year-old Maria Elisa Reyes told about a “snow-capped mountain called El Ruiz” and about how its rumbling had been disrupting life in her town.

Nobody is sure what has happened to Maria. When Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted Thursday, it triggered a massive mud slide that blanketed her town, 30 miles to the east. An estimated 22,000 people were killed.

No Way to Know

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There’s no way of knowing whether Maria survived, Paul Landrey said.

Landrey is the director of the U.S. ministry for World Vision, an international Christian relief and development organization.

Paul and Carol Landrey, who live in San Gabriel, were Maria’s sponsors for World Vision aid, sending $18 a month so that she could attend Escuela Evangelica Emery, a Presbyterian school, and receive hot meals and health check-ups. She is one of 178 children who attended the World Vision-affiliated school.

Like correspondence from other children at the school, Maria’s letter was first taken to World Vision offices in Bogota, the Colombian capital, where a translation was prepared for transmittal to her sponsors along with Maria’s original.

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Maria had addressed her letter to the Landrey’s daughter, Angela, a 17-year-old senior at Maranatha High School in Sierra Madre, who had written to the girl. The letter, written in Spanish, and perhaps written with the help of a teacher, apparently refers to the volcanic activity in September that was a prelude to the huge eruption last week:

We were worried for a while because a snow-capped mountain called El Ruiz was asleep but now is in eruption. The Lagunilla River is born from this peak, and Armero lives from its waters. The water of the river came down on us for three days with mud and sulfur. In those days, we had no water to sustain us. But now the problem is solved. Receive greetings from my family.

May God bless you. With love, Maria Elisa Reyes

The Landreys have never met Maria. Through the mail, they know that she is one of four children, the only girl, and lives with their mother in a slum on the outskirts of Armero. Her mother is a farm laborer; her father disappeared several years ago. An information sheet from World Vision provided a picture and mentioned that Maria helps with house cleaning and enjoys playing with dolls and jumping rope.

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Seeks Official Help

Landrey said he called Francisco Galvis, Colombia’s consul general in Los Angeles, on Thursday to find out what he could about Maria.

“The information now is very sketchy,” Landrey said. Two towns in the canyons below the volcano--Armero and Chinchina--had been nearly buried by the mud slides. “He said there might have been 10,000 survivors.”

At World Vision headquarters in Monrovia, Landrey is now helping coordinate the organization’s response to the disaster. Blankets, medical supplies and tents have been sent.

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Landrey said he almost joined a team of seven World Vision officials who have headed for Colombia to help with relief operations.

“My motivation was mixed,” he said, “partly because we have a lot to do here, and partly because we have this little gal we care a lot about, and we don’t know what happened to her.”


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