Tonga tsunami: Family survived waves by tying themselves to a tree

Lusiana Kikau with her husband, Mosese Tagiveitaua. They had to tie themselves to a tree with their 9-year-old daughter when tsunami hit Fafa Island Resort after the eruptions. Picture:STUFF

Lusiana Kikau clung to a trunk of a tree with her husband, Mosese Tagiveitaua, when tsunami waves hit Fafa Island, 7km away from mainland Tonga.

“We had been hearing eruptions all day, small ones, but the two big ones later on which everyone heard, that shook us,” Kikau said.

“We ran to this tree – we’ve been told that if anything happens, this tree would save us. My husband tied my daughter on top, with two other boys. I couldn’t climb the tree, so he tied us together on the trunk.”

Two men who worked at the island’s resort joined them, and together they clung on for dear life as strong waist-high waves enveloped them.

Their incredible survival story was one of many that have filtered out of Tonga a week after the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, 65 kilometres off the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, erupted last Saturday, spurting ash 20km high.

The eruptions generated a tsunami which wiped out entire islands and destroyed villages in the Ha’apai Group, and the western coastline of the main island, Tongatapu.

Yesterday the New Zealand Defence Force delivered supplies to the capital, including drinking water. More supplies will arrive next week.

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano eruption on January 15 caught on camera.

Kikau, 45, said only five of them remained on Fafa Island, after hotel guests and other workers were evacuated.

The day of the eruption her husband, the boat captain, had come back from Tongatapu and told her about the weird things he saw about the ocean.

“He said [it] just didn’t seem right. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he’s been sailing these waters for years, he knew something was going to happen.”

Kikau and her family have lived on Fafa for 17 years. She worked as a bar attendee and admin worker, her husband managed the resort’s boat.

After the water receded, they untied themselves, thinking it was safe.

“But more waves came, and we broke open a nearby house and took shelter there. It was so dark, and cold.”

Her husband left them to check the tree again, “just in case we needed to get back on top of it if the waves kept coming”.

Kikau said it was a miracle they survived, because solar panels and debris swept out by the waves could have killed them. They were evacuated to Tongatapu by a police boat on Sunday, and have been living with relatives since.

“We’ve lost everything, our home on Fafa was completely destroyed. We went back on Monday to try and salvage anything, there were photos of my daughter that we could save, but just the clothes on our back right now.”

All of Tonga was in total blackout with power, internet and phone lines down for days afterward. Power has been partially restored for some parts of Tonga, and phones on Wednesday night.

Before the lines went down, Mere Taufa, 36, has last spoken to her sister, who was in Nuku’alofa, buying produce from the market for their Sunday lunch.

After the eruptions Taufa had taken cover under their dinner table with her other sister. She had spoken briefly to Stuff, “I have to go, my sister she’s not safe … my [phone] battery is low, I’m sorry…”.

A week after that call, yesterday Taufa said she and her family had evacuated to a relative’s house in Nuku’alofa. They were all safe, including Taufa’s sister, who had evacuated to a relative’s house after abandoning her shopping.

“I just needed to get in touch with her, to be sure she was safe. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to because my phone was about to die. On the first ring she answered, thank God. She was on her way to my aunt’s house, she was safe … and then my phone died.

“We just thank God, it happened so fast, and we just thank God that we’re all safe. We weren’t expecting this at all.”

Tafu Wolfgramm, who lives on Nuku’alofa, said some parts of Tonga still have no power, and the internet connection is down.

He said he was lucky because they had their power restored the day after the tsunami hit.

“Everything is slowly getting back to normal, people are shopping for tomorrow … Sundays are always an important day here in Tonga,” Wolfgramm said.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s destructive event, stories of survival and bravery have surfaced, including that of 57-year-old Tongan Aquaman, Lisala Folau, who swam 28 hours from Atata Island to Tongatapu, after the tsunami swept him out to sea.

Iliesa Tora, a former Fijian journalist living in Nuku’alofa said Tonga was lucky the devastation caused by the tsunami wasn’t as bad as that in Japan and Thailand.

He said hospitals have been getting inundated with people complaining of breathing problems because of the ash.

Shops had run out of water blasters and other cleaning equipment.

“We’ve been told to wear masks when we go outside, sunglasses to protect our eyes, and hats too if we can,” Tora said.

People were pitching in to help sweep the roads, and help each other out.

“But we need water, shops ran out on Monday and people have been asking for water over the radio. Yesterday the government advised that it’s safe to drink water from covered water catchments, so that’s helped a bit.”

Tora said that while life is slowly starting to get back to normal, there was still uncertainty about future eruptions.

“I don’t think people are feeling safe, there is worry that the eruptions may happen again and an even worse tsunami.

“What happened at least will help us prepare for what could happen again, and people are taking it very seriously now.”

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