The story of a Tongan man washed away by the tsunami and 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 off communications between it and the rest of the world.
Lisala Folau, a retired disabled carpenter, told Tongan radio station Broadcom FM that he swam and floated from his island of Atata via two other uninhabited islands to eventually reach the main island of Tongatapu, a total distance of around 13 kilometres.
A transcript of his Thursday interview was translated and shared by a senior editor at the radio station, George Lavaka, on Facebook.
Folau said he had been painting his home on Saturday when he was alerted about the tsunami.
“My elder brother and a nephew came to my assistance, this time the wave has gone through our lounge, we moved to another part of the house when a bigger wave, this wave I would estimate was about not less than six metres, [arrived].”
“Bear in mind that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly … and when I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than I,” he added.
“We hid to the eastern side of the house, the waves were coming from the west so we escaped that wave.”
He said they climbed a tree with his niece while his brother ran to seek help. When there was a lull in the waves, they climbed down but just then a larger wave hit.
“When the wave break on land just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold onto and we were swept out to sea. This was 7pm,” Folau said.
“We floated at sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark and we could not see each other. Very soon I could not her my niece calling anymore but I could hear my son calling.”
Folau said that in that moment, he decided not to answer his son, for fear that he would risk his life to save him.
“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 jump in and try to rescue me. But I understand the tough situation and I thought if the worst comes and it is only me.”
Folau said he figured that if he clung to a tree trunk, his family would at least be able to find his body if he died.
“I floated and was grounded to the east of the island of Toketoke.”
Folau said at one point on Sunday morning he saw a police patrol boat heading to Atata island.
“I grabbed a rag and waved but the boat did not see me. It then was returning to Tonga and I waved again but perhaps they did not see me.”
He then tried to get to the island of Polo’a, setting off at about 10am and landing at around 6pm on Sunday.
“I called and yelled for help but there was no one there. My mind was now on my niece that we were washed away together and now I have survived.”
Folau said he then focused on his next move. “I was now strong-minded that I could make it to mui’i Sopu.” Sopu is on the western edge of the capital Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu.
“I was thinking about my sister at Hofoa who is suffering with diabetes and my youngest daughter [who] has heart problems. All this was racing through my mind.”
At around 9pm, Folau said he staggered towards a house in Sopu, eventually arriving at the end of a tar sealed public road and was picked up by a passing vehicle and taken to the driver’s home.
The Guardian has not been able to establish what happened to Folau’s son and the niece he was with in Atata. However only three people have been confirmed to have died following the tsunami, none from Atata.
Another son, Talivakaola Folau, took to Facebook to express his gratitude: “A story I’ll never forget in my life … While talking with family in Tonga my tears continued to fall when I think of my Dad swimming around in the ocean after the tsunami hit … My heart is broken imagining you drinking in the seawater 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 is absolutely amazing, given that he was fleeing a catastrophic event, to be under that kind of pressure, mentally and with additional physical pressure of fleeing in the dark.”
“Even very experienced swimmers have physical boundaries and set parameters, but it takes a different mindset to take do what he did. It’s not like he fell off a boat, he was escaping an erupting volcano, swept away by tsunami. There are more physical obstacles, such as ash, debris, waves and other factors that would have made his swim a lot more challenging.”