On this day in 1962, an avalanche on the slopes of an extinct volcano kills more than 4,000 people in Peru. Nine towns and seven smaller villages were destroyed.
Mount Huascaran rises 22,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Beneath it laid many small Peruvian communities, the inhabitants of which farmed in the Rio Santa Valley. On the evening of January 10, as most of the region’s people gathered in their homes for dinner, the edge of a giant glacier suddenly broke apart and thundered down the mountain. The block of ice was the size of two skyscrapers and weighed approximately 6 million tons, and it made a loud noise as it fell, which was heard in the towns below.
As avalanches were not unusual in the area, it was common knowledge that there was usually a 20 to 30 minute gap between the sound of the ice cracking off and an avalanche, which gave people time to seek higher ground. However, this time, the avalanche traveled nine-and-a-half miles in only seven minutes, wiping away several communities. The towns of Ranrahirca and Huarascucho were buried under 40 feet of ice, mud, trees, boulders and other debris. Only a handful of people in each town survived. The avalanche finally ended at the Santa River, where it stopped the water flow, causing flooding in nearby areas.
Overall, approximately 4,000 people lost their lives in the avalanche. Some bodies were carried all the way to the Pacific Ocean near Chimbote, 100 miles away. Others were buried under so much debris that their bodies were never recovered. An additional 10,000 farm animals were killed and millions of dollars in crops were destroyed.
Eight years later, an earthquake set off another terrible avalanche in the same area.