Colombia's Mortal Agony

A volcano unleashes its fury, leaving at least 20,000 dead or missing

It was shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, and Pilot Manuel Cervero was nearly home. Cervero was flying a DC-8 cargo jet from Miami to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, a sprawling city of 5 million in the Andes. The plane was cruising at 24,000 ft., 110 miles or ten minutes from El Dorado International Airport. Then, without warning, Cervero and his aircraft ran afoul of one of nature's most destructive phenomena.

"First came a reddish illumination that shot up to about 26,000 ft.," the pilot recalled. "Then came a shower of ash that covered us and left me without visibility. The cockpit...

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