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Tongan man swept away by tsunami survives after 26 hours afloat

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Tongan man swept away by tsunami survives after 26 hours afloat

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Lisala Folau had been at sea for around 12 hours, drifting between the islands of Tonga overnight after a tsunami hit his house, when he saw a police patrol boat.

Mr Folau, 57, grabbed a rag and waved, hoping to be saved from the disaster caused by the eruption of an undersea volcano about 40 miles from Tonga. But the people on the police boat did not respond. Mr. Folau wasn’t even halfway through his attempt to get to safety.

The ordeal began when Mr. Folau, a retired carpenter, was painting at his home on Atata Island, he told Broadcom FM, a Tongan radio station, according to a translated transcript from the interview shared by a radio station editor, George Lavaka, on Facebook. It was Saturday night, and the underwater volcano had just erupted, causing black rocks to rain down from the sky and dragging a wall of water over the islands.

Almost a week later, the extent of the devastation in Tonga is still unknown as the disaster destroyed an undersea cable essential for effective communication with the rest of the world. The explosion also caused a massive ash cloud which contaminated drinking water sources and prevented relief flights from landing for four days. Despite the scale of the disaster, Thursday night the death toll was just three.

Shortly after Saturday night’s eruption, Mr Folau’s older brother managed to alert him to the arrival of a tsunami wave. Along with a nephew, he tried to help Mr. Folau, who said he was disabled and had difficulty walking, as the waves swept over the house.

During a lull in the waves, they worked with several others to try to get to Atata Heights, where 106 people live, according to Tonga’s 2021 census. Around 7 p.m., Mr. Folau’s older brother shouted to the group that a big wave was coming.

“I just turned around and looked at the wave, it was a bigger wave than the six meters that destroyed our house,” Mr Folau said.

The wave, nearly 20ft by his estimate, swept Mr. Folau and his niece, Elisiva, out to sea in darkness. Mr. Folau heard his son scream, but he remained silent.

“I thought if I answered him he would come and we would both suffer, so I just floated around, crushed by the big waves that kept coming,” Mr Folau said.

Mr Folau said he wanted to find land, but he also believed that if he clung to a tree, his family would have an easier time finding his body.

About 12 hours had passed when he saw a police patrol boat heading towards Atata at around 7 a.m.

“I grabbed a rag and waved but the boat didn’t see me,” Mr Folau said. “He was then coming back to Tonga and I waved again but maybe they didn’t see me.”

Mr. Folau then set about trying to reach the island of Polo’a, arriving around 6 p.m. “I called and screamed for help but there was no one there,” he said.

Mr Folau said his mind was filled with thoughts of his family, including his niece, whom he had not seen since they were swept away, and other close relatives who had health problems.

He said those thoughts motivated him to travel to Sopu, which is at the western end of the capital, Nuku’alofa, on Tongatapu, the main island.

Mr. Folau arrived around 9 p.m., crawled to the end of a public road, then used a piece of wood as a cane. He walked until he found help from someone in a vehicle. He did not say over the radio if he knew the condition of his niece or other relatives, and communication with Tonga remained difficult on Friday.

“And it was manna from God for me and my family, and the church as well as Atata, so unexpected that I survived being swept away, floating, and surviving the dangers I had just faced,” did he declare.

Peter Lund, New Zealand’s acting high commissioner to Tonga, told The Associated Press that Mr Folau’s story was consistent with the timeline of the disaster and a missing person’s report on Atata. “It’s one of those miracles that happens,” Mr. Lund said.

Tongan man swept away by tsunami survives after 26 hours afloat

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