On the night of January 3, 1972, Manuel Peña, an English teacher from Guasca, Cundinamarca, had just finished inspecting renovations to his new home in Minuto de Díos, when a spark from a faulty electrical circuit landed on a mattress. Having gone to the house next door with his godson for a drink, Peña recalls how, after sensing there was smoke, he managed to scramble on to the roof of his home in a ruana, and, alongside firemen, extinguish the flames. This incident that didn’t cause significant damage other than to a mattress that “smoldered three days in a nearby parking lot” did, however, change the direction of the life of this teacher, who taught at three different schools across the city in order to raise a family.
During the weeks that followed, Manuel and friend Guillermo Idrobo retraced in their minds the cause of the fire, and decided that what their community needed was a chapter of the civilian defense force, Defensa Civil Colombiana (DCC) that was constituted in 1967, by Presidential decree, during the government of Carlos Lleras Restrepo.
After recruiting several dozen concerned citizens to take the emergency response course offered by the DCC in order to have their chapter incorporated, Peña quickly rose within the ranks of the organization to become an instructor. He took the initiative to open regional offices of the community-based force, including one in San José del Guaviare, a tropical, riverine outpost, colonized by lumber merchants. Then, on June 28, 1974, disaster struck. As road construction workers were busy removing debris that had blocked the Bogotá to Villavicencio road, a powerful landslide plummeted 300 meters into the Quebrada Blanca valley, crushing 40 vehicles, including five municipal buses. Among the 250 dead, were dozens of children returning from Villavicencio, departmental capital of Meta, after a school outing. Manuel was summoned to the scene of the tragedy, and first of many tragic situations in which he would rescue the injured from wreckage, and attempt to assist the most vulnerable. “The trauma of seeing so many dead is terrible. It makes you want to faint,” explains Manuel.
Tragedy, however, turned the first responder into a shortwave radio enthusiast, and through his frequency established connections and lifelong friendships. “My little radio was the only link between Popayán and Bogotá when the 1983 earthquake struck,” recalls Manuel, proudly blazoning the Golden Wings medal he earned from Búsqueda Aérea y Rescate – BAYR – for a lifetime of service.
November 13, 1985, is a day Colombians will never forget, given the widespread devastation and loss of life caused by the eruption of the Nevado del Ruíz volcano. As 20,000 inhabitants of the prosperous market town of Armero, in central Tolima, were asleep, a giant wall of mud came crashing down a mountain, bringing with it rocks the size of houses. Nestled in the path of the mudflow, Armero lost almost all of its inhabitants in the span of five minutes.
The night Armero was obliterated from the map of Colombia, Manuel Peña was at home watching the late night news, when a bulletin reported that pilots flying near the erupting volcano had ash obstructing their windscreens.
The news program also confirmed that Tolima was in a blackout. It was then, that Manuel feared the worst and scanned the shortwave radio for frequencies. “I heard H-K-Six-France- Delta-Echo. It was Luis Eduardo, an operator from Guayabal, Tolima. He went on to say: ‘I smell sulfur and hear an infernal noise.'” Luis Eduardo survived the tragedy that would crush Armero and turn the town in to a mass grave, but lost his entire family.
Manuel immediately packed his bags and headed to the disaster zone where he began coordinating the arrival of 36 helicopters from an empty field. The helicopters and thousands of rescue workers would attempt to pull survivors from the mud, including children trapped between collapsed walls. Among them, a 13-year-old called Omayra Sánchez. “Communication saved lives,” says Manuel of the role radio operators played during the first hours of the tragedy.
By 5:00 pm, Manuel was helping local medics from Guayabal and Honda apply 800 injections of an anti-tetanus vaccine to the injured after the two-story hospital was leveled. He crossed treacherous streams overflowing with boulders and debris to search for Omayra.
“Snakes were a real problem as Armero had a herpetarium, and the reptiles escaped to find safety on islets created by the avalanche. Many survivors were bitten,” recalls Manuel, recounting also how the power unleashed by the mudflow pushed the Magdalena River 18-kilometers north towards the town of Ambalema.
“The only positive aspect of Armero is that the roads remained intact, and one could arrive at the base of the mud,” remembers Manuel of the five days spent among the dead and injured. He also addressed the international press on a daily basis regarding the body count, and deteriorating condition of the teenage girl. Omayra died three days after the tragedy from her wounds, and became the symbol of Armero.
Manuel gently steers the interview away from Armero towards one of his favorite topics, civil aviation, and the plane accidents he has had to assist. He vividly remembers each and every one, having jotted down in a private log the names of passengers and details of the rescue operations. “At least once a month we were called to respond as planes flew by Visual Flight Rules (VFR). This is what happened in the Cerro del Burro. The pilot was way too low,” he explains.
On May 19, 1993, a Boeing 727 operated by Sociedad Aeronáutica de Medellín (SAM) ploughed into the highest mountain in southwestern Antioquia with 125 passengers. Storm conditions contributed to the pilots not being able to pass the peak between the towns of Frontino and Urrao. The crash site was believed to be in an inhospitable terrain of high altitude wetlands, where rescue teams required five helicopters and two support aircraft.
Together with members of the Civil Aeronautics Association, National Army, Police, and Red Cross of Antioquia, Manuel and 20 members of the Defensa Civil spent two days in the region, searching for possible survivors. “We had to cut through the mountain growth with machetes,” recalls Manuel, whose duties included coordinating the operation with shortwave radios, walkie-talkies, and assisting fire brigades with local hazards. “I learned a lot about flying in those days, even though I am not a pilot,” says Manuel, who now, at age 78, still harbors a fascination for flight paths, navigation charts, location of radio towers, and geographic landmarks.
Surrounded by mementos of trips to the United States where scores of fire departments from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Tallahassee, Florida, have awarded him honorary membership, Manuel’s job is no longer in thefield, but in conference rooms where he lectures on non-conventional threats to first responders from chemical to biological materials.
His passion, though, remains Colombia, and even though he has lived through the worst moments this country could endure, such as the bombing of an Avianca flight over Soacha allegedly by the Medellín cartel, his unassuming demeanor proves that the highest vocation one can earn in a lifetime is to serve others.
“I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else,” says Manuel, sitting in his Chapinero apartment, and basking in the appreciation he receives from around the world for having been there when disaster strikes. As his shortwave radio crackles with the faint voices of shortband afficionados reporting on controlled fires and traffic accidents, Manuel remains on duty 24/7, a guardian of our skies and friend to those in need.