Nation/World

‘Our ears were ringing’: Tongans describe harrowing volcano eruption and tsunami, hours swimming at sea

SYDNEY - Marian Kupu was at home with her family on Saturday when she heard the loudest sound in her life. An explosion far more powerful than an atomic bomb had occurred about 40 miles away from Tonga’s capital, shattering her windows.

Kupu, a journalist at a radio station in Nuku’alofa, knew it could only be one thing. The undersea volcano that had threatened Tonga for years had finally blown. A tsunami would soon be on its way.

But when she tried calling to her family, she couldn’t hear a thing.

“Our ears were ringing, we couldn’t hear each other talking,” she said in an interview on Friday. “What we did was just mimic each other to evacuate, to get in the car and just go, to move away from the shoreline.”

The massive eruption that killed at least three people and blanketed Tonga in ash also severed the Pacific nation’s communications with the outside world. The Tongan diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Pacific waited anxiously to hear from loved ones.

[Alaskans with roots in South Pacific wait to hear from relatives after massive volcano eruption]

With some satellite phone connection restored in recent days, however, stories of Tongans’ shock, survival and heroism are starting to emerge.

The ash that fell like sooty snow for two days covered the airport runway, making aid flights impossible. With heavy equipment unavailable, Tongans came out in force to sweep the runway by hand, enabling Australian and New Zealand military cargo planes to land on Thursday.

“We had people coming in from villages, we had [the Tongan king’s] armed forces coming in, we had fire department volunteers,” Kupu said. “Normally to clean the runway would take two weeks but it only took us four days because we all came together.”

“There is a lot of work being done here right now,” she said. “The roads are clearing up, we have little mini mountains of dust on the sidewalks and pathways. Even homes have been sprayed, vehicles. We are slowly cleaning up.”

The arrival of the much-needed supplies, especially drinking water to replace stores contaminated by salt water and ash, was a boost for the archipelago, halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

But the strict protocols that have kept the coronavirus out of Tonga also mean islanders will have to wait a bit longer to access those supplies. Foreign governments and aid organizations have agreed to contactless drop-offs.

Australian troops in face masks unloaded supplies from a cargo plane on Thursday as Tongan authorities in full-body protective gear oversaw the operation, according to photos released Friday by the Australian military.

The supplies were then put into quarantine for three days, Kupu said. A second Australian flight turned back en route after a positive coronavirus case was discovered on board, the Guardian reported.

As aid trickled in, stories of Tongans’ ordeal began to filter out.

The most remarkable tale was that of Lisala Folau, a 57-year-old retired carpenter who told Kupu’s Broadcom radio station that he had been swept out to sea by the tsunami.

Folau said he was painting his house on the island of Atata on Saturday when his brother warned him of the approaching wall of water. As 20-foot waves began to hit his home, he climbed a tree to escape. He climbed down when he thought the waves had passed, only for an even larger wave to sweep away him and his nephew.

“We floated at sea, just calling out to each other,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview posted online and verified by Kupu. “It was dark and we could not see each other.”

Soon, Folau could not hear his nephew, but he could hear his 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 [have] jumped in and try to rescue me,” he said.

“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,” Folau said, adding that he tried to find something to cling to so that he either survived, or his family could at least find his body.

“Bear in mind that I am disabled,” he told the station. “I believe a baby can walk faster than I.”

Nonetheless, Folau said he managed to drift and swim for more than 24 hours. At one point, he said he tried to wave down a police patrol boat, but it didn’t detect him.

Finally, he staggered onto land and was picked up by a passing motorist, he said.

Folau’s nephew and son also survived. His story quickly gained attention, despite Tonga’s still-limited Internet.

Kupu had just finished an in-person interview with Folau on Friday, pausing a phone conversation to say goodbye to the man whose story has earned him the nickname “Aquaman.”

“I asked him if he knows what Aquaman is, and he said no,” she recounted with a laugh.

“I said, ‘Do you know you’re famous? Everybody is talking about you,” she added.

Tonga’s most famous survivor smiled and shook his head.

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