The search for survivors buried alive at Armero was at least temporarily abandoned today, four days after a flash flood engulfed the town in a river of mud. The regional governor said he doubted that Armero would be rebuilt.
A Red Cross aid station established on the northern edge of the submerged town was packed up this morning, its tents and minimal supplies carried off by a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter, as volunteer medics who had labored to extract survivors from the rubble locked arms and wept.
The minister of health, Rafael de Zubiria, said in an afternoon radio broadcast that the danger of an epidemic spreading from rotting bodies had forced authorities to prohibit traffic in the disaster area.
But adding to the confusion that has plagued the rescue operation from the start, the minister was contradicted shortly afterward by the head of the National Emergency Commission, Victor Ricardo, and the minister of defense, Gen. Miguel Vega, who in other radio interviews declared that rescue operations had not been suspended.
Colombian newspapers published reports today that the government was considering declaring nearby Armero a graveyard and burning the more than 20,000 corpses sunk in mud and debris there. But there was no official word on this from President Belisario Betancur, who has said little publicly since the volcano erupted Wednesday night.
Betancur's unusual low profile during this national emergency has reinforced a widespread impression that the government has been overwhelmed by the scale of the devastation and unable to mount an efficient rescue effort.
A story in Bogota's leading daily, El Tiempo, reported today that the president had surveyed the disaster zone several times and had flown yesterday with geological experts around the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, whose eruption triggered the flooding of Armero and some surrounding towns.
The disaster, which according to official figures resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 persons, came a week after another national tragedy, the takeover of the Supreme Court building in Bogota on Nov. 6 by leftist guerrillas that prompted government security forces to invade the building.The terrorists, 12 Supreme Court justices and about 50 others who had been taken hostage were killed in the original takeover or in the counterattack by security forces. The El Tiempo report said that as a result of the combined crises, Betancur was looking "grave" and had lost weight.
Fears of another natural disaster were evident today in this riverside agricultural community 15 miles southeast of Armero, where more than 1,000 persons -- one tenth the population -- have packed up and moved to higher ground. Those who remained were keeping tuned to radio stations for warnings of more avalanches and floods.
A government announcement at 4 p.m. yesterday of imminent flooding, after the Nevado del Ruiz exploded twice again, sent most residents of the town scurrying up to a bluff overlooking the Magdalena River.
The official alert, retracted two hours later, sparked a panic throughout the valley. Residents in Mariquita, Honda and other riverside locations around the volcano rushed out of their towns in what reporters described as "human stampedes."
Mothers with children in their arms; people carrying only small bags of personal belongings; invalids in wheelchairs; streams of people on foot, in cars, on motorcycles -- all fled in terror to ridges and hilltops.
Many had returned to their homes by last night, still jittery about the prospect of the nearby Guali, Claro, Azufrado, Chinchina or Magdalena rivers suddenly surging over their banks. It was the second such panic in Mariquita and Honda in two days, the first one Friday apparently having been set off by rumors of impending disaster.
Yesterday's alarm appeared more serious because it was sounded by the minister of communications, Noemi Sanin. A clarifying communique published today said that the Nevado del Ruiz did explode twice yesterday afternoon but that the eruptions were minor and "internal" and posed no immediate danger to residents in the region. People were urged to remain calm.
The government is nervous, however, because of criticism that it failed to evacuate Armero in time after last week's volcanic explosion.
Colombian geologists have given conflicting estimates about the chances of Nevado del Ruiz further menacing the region. Today, Darrell Hurd, a U.S. geologist who did his doctoral thesis on the volcano and returned to Colombia after last week's blast, predicted more eruptions in the next weeks and months.
"Of course we're still afraid," said Eduardo Ortiz, a 46-year-old farmer in Ambalema who panicked yesterday and, grabbing his wife, two children, a sack of clothes and some drinking water, ran out of town.
The local priest rushed around Ambalema -- an old but tidy Spanish colonial town of white houses with brown tile roofs -- echoing the government's alert. Even patients and doctors at the hospital, which has been turned into an emergency field facility run by Ecuadoran medics to treat flood victims, were evacuated by helicopter.
Ortiz lost a brother in the destruction of Armero, but he has no plans to leave the valley.
He has mixed feelings about the rivers in these parts, which he said can be mean and deadly. But they also give to this region its richly irrigated soil, which yields coffee, cotton and rice.
"You plant some seeds here and they grow; there's no risk," Ortiz remarked.
As for Armero, it is unclear after today's contradictory statements by top government officials what will happen next. Despite the insistence by some officials that the rescue effort is continuing, it was apparent at field hospitals here and at Lerida this afternoon that no additional survivors were being pulled out of the deadly muck covering the town.
The government appeared reluctant to confirm what visitors to the ruins of Armero said had been the abandonment of official search efforts. Red Cross doctors had said earlier that those not rescued by today had next to no chance of surviving longer.
Yet, after the Red Cross withdrew from the area this morning, a U.S. professor of geology, Marc Defant, walked across the mud flow and found a man, still breathing, buried up to his neck and lifted him out.
Defant, 34, who teaches in Tampa, Fla., and members of the Red Cross crew forced to abandon the scene believe others who might have been saved have now been left to die. "We could hear what sounded like someone else crying, but at that point we could do nothing about it," he said in an interview at the Mariquita airport north of Armero.
Asked by a radio reporter today about the prospect of reconstructing the once-thriving community, the governor of the state of Tolima, Eduardo Alzate, said: "I doubt we can rebuild Armero. There's too much mud on top of it. We're thinking of rebuilding Armero in Guayabal," a town that lies about 3 miles north of the dead city.
In Washington, the Agency for International Development, which has sent 12 helicopters to help in the rescue efforts, said that as of Sunday morning, the helicopters have moved more than 350,000 pounds of emergency survival supplies and transported about 950 stranded, injured or rescued persons.