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The last journey of the Talofa

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, June 09, 2014

IT is a shipping disaster that remains etched in the minds of some people, especially the victims' families.

The weather was not good when the barge Talofa left Lautoka wharf for Labasa with concrete poles, corrugated iron and dhal.

Cyclone Martin was affecting the country with strong winds and heavy rain when the barge left for its destination with the cargo.

But the Talofa failed to reach Labasa and it was seen upside down at Yasawa-i-Rara the next afternoon, with no sign of the eight people who were on board. An extensive search by sea and air was carried out for the eight people but there was no sign of them and their bodies have also not been found.

While this newspaper did an extensive coverage on the tragedy then, there was no word at that time on what happened on board before the barge left port on April 15, 1986.

Today, we bring you an exclusive interview with a crew member of the Talofa who somehow did not take the trip on that day for various reasons.

For the first time, he reveals what the situation was like on board before the barge departed with its cargo and how the incident changed his life.

HE left drinking alcohol on the day he learnt that his workmates were missing at sea.

And he has not tasted alcohol again since that day 28 years ago.

The reason for leaving alcohol, he said, was because of the last moments he spent with his workmates before they departed Lautoka wharf for Labasa on the night of April 15, 1986.

Since that day, neither he nor his workmates' families have seen them, not even their dead bodies.

On Friday, April 18, 1986, The Fiji Times reported that eight people were missing at sea after the barge Talofa capsized near Yasawa-i-Rara.

This newspaper also reported on the extensive sea and aerial search for the missing people, who have not been found to this day.

After reading about the Talofa incident in this newspaper a few weeks ago, Taniela Vuli came to our office, saying he had a story to tell.

Mr Vuli, 69, said he worked as a bosun on the barge and he helped other crew members load cargo on April 15, 1986.

"I didn't complete loading as the load wasn't properly arranged and tied. To brace the cargo, you have to lay down steel wires to keep the load balanced," he said.

"I left the barge around lunch time and went straight to its owner and told him that I won't be going on the trip to Labasa that night.

"The reason was because I had not taken my time off for the past two or three weeks and I wanted to go to Suva and see my family."

Mr Vuli said he was told by the barge owner that he would no longer have a job if he did not go on the trip to Labasa.

Despite the threat of losing the job he had for more than a year, he insisted that he needed time-off to visit his wife and four children in Suva.

"I decided to leave the job. I went to the Marine Department office at the wharf and signed off to show that I was leaving the job.

"But before heading back to Suva on that same day, actually in the evening, I went to the wharf to meet my workmates on the barge.

"Apart from the engineer Jack Chambers, the rest of the crew members, including the captain, were drinking beer on the barge before the departure. I couldn't see Jack anywhere and he could have been in the engine room.

"I had three bottles of beer with them and said goodbye to them about 7pm as the taxi was waiting to take me to Suva. Even the young captain was drinking," he claimed.

Mr Vuli said by looking at his workmates, he believed that they were drinking beer for a long time, well before the time he went to them.

He arrived in Suva late at night — by the time the barge had left Lautoka wharf for Labasa with its cargo of concrete poles, corrugated iron and dhal.

"Since the weather was not good at that time, I stayed home and went to town on Friday and bought a copy of The Fiji Times.

"I read about the Talofa and I just couldn't believe it and I was shocked. I read it again and after reading it the third time, I was able to digest the bad news.

"When I read that the eight people on board were missing, I just thought about the last few minutes I had spent with my workmates on April 15, 1986.

"I prayed and thanked God that I was alive as if I had gone on that trip to Labasa, then I would have died too. From that time, I left drinking alcohol. I haven't drunk again since that day."

When asked to elaborate on it, he said, "I was shocked and the only thing that came in my mind then was the few minutes I spent with them before the trip and how we shared some beer."

"Thinking about those few minutes spent with my workmates, sharing some beer and the fact that I didn't go on that trip made me stop drinking alcohol.

"I used to drink a lot before but that one incident changed my life. I haven't drunk alcohol since the day I learnt that my workmates were missing at sea.

"I believe most of the crew members were really drunk and they didn't know what to do when the Talofa faced problems out at sea."

Mr Vuli said he went to Lautoka when the search was being held for the eight missing people but he could not do much.

He also said he testified at the Marine Department inquiry then into the Talofa incident and told them what he knew about the crew members drinking before departure. Some relatives of those who perished in the tragedy said they were still wondering what went wrong on the night of April 15, 1986, apart from the bad weather being experienced on that day because of Cyclone Lottie.

They said while news of their loved ones being missing at sea was painful, what made things worse was the fact that no dead bodies of those who were on board the barge were ever found.

And since no bodies were found, the families of those who lost their lives in the disaster held a mass or church service to pray for the souls of the eight people — something that was more painful for them.

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