The story of a Tongan man swept away by the tsunami who drifted and swam between islands for more than 24 hours has become one of the first to emerge from the island nation, five days after the disaster cut communications between her and the rest of the world.
Lisala Folau, a retired disabled carpenter, told Tonga radio station Broadcom FM that he swam and floated from his island of Atata via two other uninhabited islands to finally reach the main island of Tongatapu, a distance total of approximately 13 kilometres.
A transcript of his Thursday interview was translated and shared by radio station editor George Lavaka on Facebook.
Folau said he painted his house on Saturday when he was alerted to the tsunami.
“My older brother and a nephew came to my aid, this time the wave passed through our living room, we moved to another part of the house when a bigger wave, this wave I would estimate was not lower than six meters, [arrived].”
“Don’t forget that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly…and when I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than me,” he added.
“We hid on the east side of the house, the waves were coming from the west so we escaped this wave.”
He said they climbed a tree with his niece while his brother ran for help. When there was a lull in the waves they would come down but just then a bigger wave hit.
“When the wave swept over the land just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold on to and we were swept out to sea. It was 7 p.m.,” Folau said.
“We floated out to sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark and we couldn’t see each other. Pretty soon I couldn’t hear my niece calling but I could hear my son calling.
Folau said that at that time he decided not to respond to his son, lest he risk his life to save him.
“The truth is that no son can abandon his father. But for me, as a father, I kept silent because if I answered him, he would intervene and try to save me. But I understand the difficult situation and I thought that if the worst happened, it was just me.”
Folau said he believed that if he clung to a tree trunk, his family could at least find his body if he died.
“I floated and was stranded east of Toketoke Island.”
Folau said at some point on Sunday morning he saw a police patrol boat heading towards Atata Island.
“I grabbed a rag and waved but the boat didn’t see me. He was then coming back to Tonga and I waved again but maybe they didn’t see me.
He then attempted to reach the island of Polo’a, leaving around 10:00 a.m. and landing around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday.
“I called and shouted for help, but no one was there. My mind was now on my niece that we were taken together and now I survived.
Folau said he then focused on his next move. “I was now convinced that I could go to mui’i Sopu.” Sopu is at the western end of the capital Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu.
“I was thinking of my sister in Hofoa who has diabetes and my youngest daughter [who] has heart problems. It was all swirling around in my head. »
At around 9 p.m., Folau said he staggered towards a house in Sopu, eventually came to the end of a tar-sealed public road and was picked up by a passing vehicle and taken to the home. of the driver.
The Guardian was unable to establish what happened to Folau’s son and the niece he was with at Atata. However, only three people have been confirmed dead as a result of the tsunami, none from Atata.
Another son, Talivakaola Folau, took to Facebook to express his gratitude: “A story I will never forget in my life…While talking with my family in Tonga, my tears continued to flow when I think of my dad swimming in the ocean after the tsunami. knocked… I’m heartbroken imagining you drinking sea water dad, but you’re a strong-willed man.
The story has gone viral on social media since it was first shared by Tongan journalist Marian Kupu.
According to Erika Radewagen, an Olympic-level swimming official from the Pacific, Folau’s survival story is impressive.
“It’s absolutely incredible, given that he was fleeing a catastrophic event, to be under that kind of pressure, mentally and with the added physical pressure of fleeing in the dark.”
“Even very experienced swimmers have physical limitations and set parameters, but it takes a different mindset to do what he did. It’s not like he fell off a boat, he escaped from an erupting volcano, swept away by a tsunami.There are more physical obstacles, such as ash, debris, waves and other factors that would have made it much more difficult to swim.