All of Monica Ibarra's relatives --
father, mother, three sisters, two brothers-in-law, six nieces, five nephews, an aunt, an uncle and two cousins -- live in her native Armero, Colombia, a town destroyed by mud and water when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted Thursday night.
Since the eruption, she has been unable to reach them because communications between Armero and the outside world were wiped out. Ibarra, who lives with her husband in an Alexandria town house, waits by the telephone with her list of relatives at hand. Unable to sleep, she said, she spends much of the time praying.
"I feel terrible," said Ibarra, her eyes brimming with tears. "I didn't hear anything from my relatives. I don't know what happened to them. I have no other family, only my husband's family."
She called friends in Bogota. She talked to someone at the Colombian Embassy here. Everyone told her the same thing: The tragedy is so overwhelming that it will be a while before anyone knows who has survived and who has not.
So she has decided to take matters into her own hands; She plans to fly to Bogota today.
Ibarra was the embassy's only caller seeking information on relatives, a spokesman said. About 6,000 Colombians live in this area, but few are from the towns struck by the volcano, a Colombian community leader here said.
Colombian and Red Cross officials have said that the death toll could reach 20,000. Armero, most seriously affected by the volcano, was said by some residents to have been 90 percent submerged. The town, with a population of 25,000, is about 18 miles east of the volcano. Survivors said the volcano, which erupted in the middle of the night, turned the land into scalding rivers of dirt and debris.
"I talked to my sister two weeks ago and she said everyone and everything were fine," said Ibarra, who at 30 is the youngest of the sisters and brothers. "She did not tell me anything about the volcano. When I lived there, we never worried about the volcano.
"I was home for a vacation in August," added Ibarra, who moved to this area from Armero eight years ago. "I did not hear anything about the volcano when I was there."
Yesterday, she sat on her sofa and pulled from a box the color photographs she had taken on her trip home. There is a group picture of her nieces and nephews on their way home from communion, the girls in white gowns and the boys in white shirts, black trousers and ties. In another, her father stands next to her mother, who is seated in a chair in the living room of their home. Then there is Ibarro with her relatives, washing clothes in a river.
"It is a town where you know everybody," said Ibarra, recalling her childhood. "In the afternoon you stood outside and talked to your neighbors. In the grocery store, you could meet people and talk. It is very relaxed. My family did not want to leave.
"I read in the paper that the lake and river were covered and that the cemetery, which sits high, was not covered," she said. Some of her family lived near the cemetery, but her parents, both 63 years old, were close to the river, she said.
"There was a nice park and market in the middle of town. Lots of coffee and rice fields and cows," she added. "Now, they say we have nothing. I can't imagine. I keep thinking about the children. There were so many children.
"I think and think. I said goodbye to my family on Sept. 6. I never thought of anything like this. I told them I would see them next year."
Bursting into tears, Ibarra remembered: "My father said, 'You will come every year?' and I said, 'Yes, of course.' "