Lorena Santos (second from left) and her sister Jaqueline Vásquez Sánchez
PHOTO: courtesy Armando Armero Foundation
Lorena Santos (second from left) and her sister Jaqueline Vásquez Sánchez

Story highlights

DNA proves that two Colombian women are in fact sisters separated after tragedy

Their parents died in 1985 volcano

(CNN) —  

It was a very emotional and heartfelt hug, one that lasted 82 seconds. None of the seven people in the room could say a word, but tears were flowing down their cheeks as they witnessed the intimate moment in respectful silence.

At last, Lorena Santos broke the silence. “I’m so glad I found you,” the 33-year-old Colombian woman said with tears in her eyes, her voice trembling with emotion. “I’m overcome by emotion,” the other woman replied, according to one of those present in the room for the reunion that took place Thursday in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Santos was talking to her long-lost sister, Jaqueline Vásquez Sánchez, 39. The two were separated in the city of Armero 30 years ago by a volcanic eruption that took the lives of their parents and thousands of others in one of Colombia’s greatest catastrophe.

It happened November 13, 1985. Armero was then a thriving city, the most important urban center in the province of Tolima due to its cotton production. It was called “Colombia’s white city.”

Unexpectedly, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, located about 80 miles west of Bogota, had a relatively small eruption. People living in Armero, located only 11 kilometers away (6.8 miles) away in a straight line, didn’t panic at first and went on about their business.

Unbeknown to residents, the eruption had caused an avalanche of debris, water and volcanic material to break away at a high rate of speed. The mud caught everybody by surprise. It destroyed the entire city. An estimated 25,000 people died in the catastrophe, most of them buried under the heavy, volcanic mud.

Jaqueline Vásquez Sánchez was then a 9-year-old girl. Her sister, named Suly Janeth Sánchez by their parents, was 3 years old. The family lived outside Armero.

That morning, their mother had left them in the care of a baby sitter to go to work in the city. Leaving the girls behind saved their lives. Their parents were never found after the tragedy.

The baby sitter took the girls to government officials after the disaster, but in the chaos and confusion, the pair were mistakenly placed with two different families.

“It’s a beautiful and sad story at the same time. I’m learning that I have a sister 30 years after the tragedy,” Lorena Santos told Colombian media at a press conference after the private meeting with her sister. “Now I have to learn about what happened to her during the last 30 years and she has to do the same.”

Jaqueline Vásquez Sánchez said seeing her sister was one of the most difficult things she has ever done.

“It was very emotional. I was a little nervous because I didn’t know if she would reject me or not. I had mixed feelings. I was a full of joy, but I was wondering if she would be able to love me. It’s very difficult to explain,” Vásquez Sánchez said.

The meeting was made possible thanks to a video posted online by the Armando Armero Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that helps reunite victims of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano eruption. The video featured the story of Lorena Santos, who made an appeal for contact with any possible relatives.

Francisco González, the foundation’s investigating director and one of the witness of the reunion, told CNN that he was contacted by the older sister soon after he posted the video.

“She called me and said this girl that appears in the video looks like somebody who can be my sister. In fact, I believe she’s my sister,” González said.

After the call, DNA tests were conducted. The results came in February 19: They were positive.

When they were informed, the sisters, González said, didn’t know how to react.

“They were stunned and they were nervous, especially the younger sister, who lives in Ibagué. She thought her search would help her find her mother. She was too little to remember she had a sister when the volcano’s eruption happened, so she didn’t know anything about her,” González said.

The Armando Armero Foundation has a list of 280 people looking for loved ones who disappeared in the volcano catastrophe. There are 16 children looking for their parents and parents looking for children who might have survived.

For González, the mission is personal: He lost his father and a brother in the Armero tragedy. They were buried under the fatal mix of debris and water that ran down from the volcano.

The sisters are the foundation’s first successful case. Jaqueline Vásquez Sánchez, the older sister, works at clothing factory and has two children: a 12-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy. Lorena Santos is a veterinarian and has a 3-year-old daughter.

They plan to stay in touch, they said, to learn as much as possible about each other’s life and to build the family bonds that should have been created all those years ago.