Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tonga Eruption: Epic stories of survival, resilience and loss colour the events of January 15

Lisala Folau and the son of Telai Tutuila
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

John Pulu managed to have a short phone call with ‘Tongan Aquaman’ Lisala Folau.

Avatar photo
Alice Lolohea | Reporter/Director/Videographer

Stories of hope, bravery and loss have emerged from the January 15 eruption.

Since Tonga’s communications have been semi-restored, Ordinary Tongan Lives blogger Sia ‘Uhila Angilau has taken it upon herself to share the stories of the men and women who bore the brunt of the tsunami waves.

On her Facebook page, Angilau wrote, “it’s been over 6 months since I posted on Ordinary Tongan Lives.

“When the eruption happened and the tsunami came, I had no more excuses. The stories are sometimes emotionally draining but I know they must be told.”

Angilau managed to interview a few people who had survived the worst of the tsunami, calling them “God-fearing, resilient, and brave.”

“Perhaps their stories would inspire you and move you to help one way or another.

“We appreciate the love, support, and prayers offered on our behalf thus far.”

She interviewed the man international media dubbed ‘Tongan Aquaman’, Lisala Folau, the Atatā resident who made international headlines when he was pulled out by the tsunami and spent 27 hours swimming to the main island.

On the Saturday of the eruption, Folau and his family were preparing the home for his son’s wedding. Folau has not been able to walk properly since 2014 so, when his older brother spotted the unusual rising sea levels, he told Folau to start moving to safety.

“I barely made it to the main road when my brother and nephew caught up with me, grabbed each arm and helped me move faster,” Folau recalled.

“Now, the volcano is on the North Western side of our island. ʻAtatā’s map is like a tennis racquet. The wider part is where our plantations are. The handle is where we live.

“When the waves came it split on the wider and higher end of the island, came east and west, and met up right in the middle of town where most of us live.”

Folau described a seven metre high wave crashing down on the family home, destroying everything. His brother and nephew helped him into a hibiscus tree waiting for the wave to subside. A brief interval between waves gave Folau a false sense of security.

He climbed down to walk with his grand-daughter and niece, ‘Elisiva, when his brother suddenly scrambled onto a cement water tank crying, “hold onto a tree!”

Another large wave crashed through the island, pulling Folau and his niece apart.

The current from that wave was up to our waist. It swept me and ʻElisiva away and drove us apart. I was taken east where waves from both sides twirled and tossed me to and fro. Photo: Ordinary Tongan Lives
The current from that wave was up to our waist. It swept me and ʻElisiva away and drove us apart. I was taken east where waves from both sides twirled and tossed me to and fro. Photo: Ordinary Tongan Lives

Tossed to and fro by the waves, his feet not strong enough, Folau used his hands to push himself to the surface to breathe but was repeatedly pulled down by the unforgiving water.

“As I went down the 8th time, I told myself my next one will be my last and that’ll be it for me,” Folau recalled.

“I came up to breathe one last time, a tree floated right by me and I grabbed it and held on tightly.”

Folau heard the search party, including his son, calling to him from the shore.

But he was not willing to put his son’s life at risk, “I could not, for the life of me, answer my son. I knew if I say something, he will try to get to me and our lives will both be in danger.

“ Better to lose only one than two members of the family.”

Floating in the tempestuous waters and crying silently in the dark, Folau’s faith kept him hopeful.

“That whole night I was just talking to my God. My family and children were also constantly before my eyes. I was ready to accept whatever God had for me.”

Folau arrived on the reef of Toketoke at dawn, resting and praying.

He spotted a police boat making its way to ‘Atatā and tried to get its attention but to no avail.

By now, Folau’s son had managed to rescue others on the island, including ‘Elisiva. Overturning debris on the beach, he continued to look for his Father, “he had taken me fishing in the deep waters since third grade.

“He taught me young not to fear the ocean. I knew if he answered me, I would’ve gone without hesitation.”

But when Sunday came around and Folau still hadn’t been found, his son was convinced by a relative to leave with the others for Tongatapu.

“At Nukuʻalofa, most people offered their condolences.

“By Sunday evening, our extended family decided we’d hold a memorial service for my father on Thursday— the day my wedding was planned for.”

This map details Folau's journey in water, finally arriving on Tongatapu at 10pm the next day. Photo: New York Post
This map details Folau’s journey in water, finally arriving on Tongatapu at 10pm the next day. Photo: New York Post

Still alive, Folau, hand-paddled through shallow waters to Polo’a, where the people had long been evacuated, then continued on to Toutai where he arrived at 10pm.

People had also been evacuated in this area but as Folau ambled his way to the main road with a piece of timber for a cane, a passing vehicle spotted him and picked him up.

The driver, Sione Pālavi realised Folau was the missing man being searched for and took him to his sister’s house where his family had gathered to hold a small memorial for him.

“The cry of relief, joy and perhaps desperation reverberated as everyone ran over to embrace me,” Folau remembers.

“It took a while to respond because they didn’t know if I arrived dead or alive.”

“There, in my soaked shorts and singlet, we sat on the doorstep and humbly expressed in prayer our ultimate gratitude to our God. Now, we don’t talk of injuries or inabilities, we just count blessings.”

Telai Tutu'ila's son and his family. Photo: Ordinary Tongan Lives
Telai Tutu’ila’s son and his family. Photo: Ordinary Tongan Lives

Angilau also interviewed the son of 65-year-old Mango resident Telai Tutu’ila, who wasn’t named in the article, but gave a full account of his family’s ordeal.

He recalled the sound of the eruption, thinking, “it was just thunder.

“The sound wave was extremely strong. By the third time, a boy came to say my father wanted us to come over quickly.”

By that time, people were already heading up the hill as the waves descended upon the small island.

“I couldn’t see my father at home but I heard him yelling three times, ‘run for your lives!’ I turned, grabbed my 4 year old daughter and told my wife to run.

“Then I heard two of my sister’s children crying. I got them too; carried everyone and ran.”

His wife and sister caught up with them at the hill and he left the children with them to go back and search for the rest of his family. He found his sister floating unconsciously and carried her to dry land.

He found his mother clinging to a tree near the family home which had been demolished by the wave. The water had risen to her neck as she called desperately for her husband Telai.

“I begged her to come with me and I’ll return for Dad. One of my siblings helped her up and I returned yet again to look for my father.

“Another guy joined me as we swam around calling for him. Water was at our neck then suddenly it drained out and we stood on dry ground.

“Within a few minutes, we heard the ocean boiling and it looked like a tidal wave was forming. That’s when we both ran for our lives.”

Telai Tutuila was buried by his son and other villagers of Mango
Telai Tutu’ila was buried by his son and other villagers of Mango. Photo: (L-R) Ordinary Tongan Lives / Piokalafi Fakaosi FB

Tutu’ila’s son described seeing the damage the “huge wave” wreaked upon the village.

“It destroyed all the houses. Small waves followed, then another big one broke down the trees.

“Altogether, there were nine main families of Mango and 62 of us altogether. We found everyone in one spot. Every family was complete except ours.”

Together with the other men, he held tarpaulins and mats to shelter the women and children as the ash fell on them. The people sang hymns throughout the night and in the morning, when low tide came, a prayer was said and Tutu’ila’s son set off with a few others to look for his father.

“I distanced myself from the group, cried a bit, and talked as if my father could hear me. Ko e munomuna pē. I asked him to give me a sign so I could easily find him. I was afraid he may be buried in debris.

“Soon, I came to a place encircled by big fallen trees. In the middle of it was a mound of sand and my father was lying on top. Telai Tutu’ila, my father, had passed away.

“That was the one death from our island.

“We wrapped him with what we found, carried him on a table up the mountain where we had his funeral. Our family mourned and we had his service with our soaked, muddy clothes for about the hours on the mountain.

“I’m his eldest son. I didn’t realize how much I relied on him until we buried him.

“Now, he’s gone. I wish I had time to tell him many things or learn more from him or hear his voice once more. But it’s too late now. All we have to do is move forward.”

Check out the Ordinary Tongan Lives FB page for more stories.







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