Ordinary Tongan Lives share stories told directly by Tongan families, describing the devastating events of January 15th, when underwater volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai violently erupted, triggering a tsunami that caused widespread damage across Tonga.
We live close to the bush out of town so we thought the noise was just thunder. But the sound wave was extremely strong. By the third time, a boy came to say my father wanted us to come over quickly. At that time, people were already heading uphill. Unbeknownst to us, the waves had come. We took a bag of clothes and ran to my father’s house. I couldn’t see my father at home but I heard him yelling 3 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.
My wife and sister caught up with us close to the mountain so I gave them the kids to climb up while I returned to our house. I still didn’t see one sister, my parents, and two younger brothers. On my way back, the water was up to my waist. I saw my sister unconsciously floating around so I carried her to dry land and others helped her up. Our house had already been destroyed. When I went down the third time, I spotted my mother. Water was up to her neck and she was clinging to a tree, calling my father’s name. The earlier wave separated them.
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.
As soon as we made our way up the mountain, a huge wave came. It destroyed all the houses. Small waves followed then another big one broke down the trees. Altogether, there were 9 main families of Mango and 62 of us altogether. We found everyone in one spot. Every family was complete except ours. When the ash fell, children were all under a little tent. We—the men—held tarps and mats to shelter the women while we sat outside. At night, it was low tide and I attempted to search for my father again. Everyone else sang hymns all night.
By 5:30am, we said a prayer together then I went down with a few other men to look for my 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 mount 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 3 hours on the mountain. An axe was used to soften the soil then we took turns digging his grave. When it was waist-deep, we laid him to rest.
I’m his eldest son. I didn’t realize how much I relied on him until we buried him. We were both stewards of the church and he always covered for me when I couldn’t fulfill my responsibilities. 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.”
– Family from Mango Island, Tonga
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