Swimming To Survive In a Post-Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami

Swimming To Survive In a Post-Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami

Satellite photo above shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption in an image from a weather satellite courtesy of NOAA/Cira/Rammb.

In what was described by the Tonga government as an unprecedented disaster for the island nation, the eruption of the underwater volcano (formally known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga-Haʻapai) caused myriad havoc from a hazardous ash rain, tsunamis around the Pacific, and a release of 400,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere to destruction of undersea telecommunications cables and closure of the Tonga’s airports.

The disaster has yet to be fully shown and explained to the world outside of Tonga.

But there is one incredible story of survival and human endurance.

By Rachel Treisman of National Public Radio reported that a disabled Tongan carpenter swam 7.5 km and took more than 26 hours to reach help after the tsunami swept him out to the Pacific Ocean. She writes, “57-year-old Lisala Folau claims he was swept out to sea by the tsunami waves the eruption triggered. Then the retired carpenter, who lives on a small island called Atatā with a population of 60, described swimming for 26 hours with Tongan media agency Broadcom Broadcasting.”

Senior editor George Lavaka shared a translated transcript of Folau’s interview on Facebook (see here and below).

My respects and thank you for this opportunity for me to share the difficulties that happened in the country. Perhaps the church leaders and the town officer knows my state of health and the work I use to do is carpentry, but I can’t do any more. I now can only do domestic and household work, and also patching up some homes and assist any of my family that needs my help.

On Saturday afternoon, I was working at home painting, just improving our house when I was alerted by my elder brother to do something for there was a tsunami wave. I left everything and try to escape, but bear in mind that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly, both my legs are not working properly and when I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than I.

My elder brother and a nephew came to my assistance. This time the wave has gone through our lounge, we moved to another part of the house when a bigger wave, this wave I would estimate was about not less than 6 meters and it has already breaking in the middle of the island. We hid to the eastern side of the house, the waves were coming from the west so we escaped that wave.

I listened and the trust was on my elder brother for I can’t do anything to help. We were on a tree with our nephew. My brother told us to stay put with my niece on the tree while he ought help from house on higher grounds and to find some youth to bring me up there. Anyway my niece jumped down from the tree not knowing what was in her kind, and tried to help to get to the house.

It was a lull that time, the waves were slower coming. When we got down, a woman named Tolofii and her mother, Vai and another woman who is my niece named Elisiva. They asked for my nephew to help rescue an elderly woman and for me to be assisted by Elisiva to the higher house. It was a hard task Elisiva assisting me for the it was getting cold and my feet could hardly move.

Just then my elder brother yelled out to us there was a big wave coming in.

I just turned and looked at the wave, it was a bigger wave than the 6 meters that destroyed our house.

When the wave broke on land just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold onto and we were swept out to sea. This was 7 pm. We floated at sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark and we could not see each other.

Very soon, I could not hear my niece calling any more, but I could hear my son calling. The truth is no son can abandon his father. But for me, as a father, I kept my silence for if I answered him he would jumped in and try to rescue me. But I understand the tough situation and I thought if the worst comes and it is only me. My thinking was if I answered him he would come and we would both suffer so I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming.

The pathway in the ocean and it stayed with my mind if I can cling to a tree or anything and if anything happen and I lose my life, searchers may find me and my family can view my dead body.

I was thinking after floating and drifting I landed on hard ground, then I would seek help. But this is just my testimony to the minister of the church. Praise be to God’s manna to save me.

I floated and was grounded to the east of the island of Toketoke. I kept trying. By Sunday morning about 7 am, I saw the police patrol boat heading to Atatā island. I grabbed a rag and waved, but the boat did not see me. It then was returning to Tonga and I waved again, but perhaps they did not see me.

I then tried to get to the island of Polo’a, thanks I still had some energy and I thought I still had the energy to get to Polo’a. I started there about 10 in the morning and I finally got there at 6 pm. I called and yelled for help, but there was no one there. My mind was now on my niece that we were washed away together and now I have survived.

I was now strong-minded that I could make it to mui’i Sopu for I know my family were very worried. I am thinking about my sister at Hofoa who is suffering with diabetes and my youngest daughter has heart problems. All these were racing in my mind and what point was there that now I have survived and what about them.

This drove me to get to Sopu [which is on the western edge of the capital Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu].

I struggled and got to the beach in front of the home of Paula Fukofuka in Sopu. It was about 9 pm. I crawled from there to the end of tar-sealed public road by the Fisheries Complex. There I found a piece of timber that supported me as a walking-stick. I tried to get to the Fisheries so I can ask the security officer there to use his phone to call my family. I got there and called for help, but received no response.

I kept walking and met a vehicle and I asked for help. He questioned me and I told him I am the one washed away from Atata and I have survived and am trying to contact my home. I just found out the driver was Lavi who took me to his home and the people of the village were shocked that I survived.

It was the manna of God to me and my family, and the church as well as Atatā, so unexpected that I survived after being washed away, floating and surviving the dangers I just faced. Today my sincere thanks to the minister of the church, town officer as well as the country as a whole, I know you prayed for me during the hardships I came through but thanks I am back to make up the number was lost from our island [Atatā].”

He swam 7.5 km to the main island. He ultimately reached land about 9 pm on Sunday, over 26 hours after the wave first swept him out to the Pacific.

Atatā Island, home of survivor Lisala Folau

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Steven Munatones