Sunday, March 28, 2010

Face your fears - it will make you Stronger.

Some people seem to have more than their fair share of challenges. They are survivors. They weather life’s storms and in the face of adversity, they bend and then come back stronger. Rose Talalotu is a survivor. Even before a tsunami threw a hardware store on top of her as she ran across a crowded street beside the Pago harbor. Yes, even before that, Rose was a survivor. “I’ve been through a lot of perfect storms. I’ve been through two bad marriages. My first marriage I was stabbed and then after the divorce I was in a head-on-collision, a mean car accident. My second husband pulled a gun on me…my kids say I’ve got nine lives and I guess I’ve used up a couple of them already. Hopefully I have a few more left!”

Rose was born and raised in Honolulu but she came to American Samoa fifteen years ago to help care for her parents. After they passed away, she stayed on. Rose works at the Bay Hardware Tool Shop and was at their Pago branch on the morning of 29/09. The store is on the ocean side of the main road. Stand at the counter and you can look out over the grimy harbor, the docks piled high with shipping containers. When the quake ended, Rose looked out to the harbor “because I know if there’s a big earthquake, then there could be a tsunami. I looked out the window and the tide was still high so I thought, oh the water’s still high so that’s alright.”

Rose made herself a coffee and sat to work on her computer. She had her back to the sea and so did not see the drastic changes taking place behind her. Until Ma’a, her co-worker called out to her, “Hey Rose, come take a look at the harbor!” Two steps and one glance was all she needed to get her moving.

“I walked to the window and looked out. The harbor was empty, all the yachts looked like little toys on the bottom of the ocean. You could see the bottom of the harbor, the dirt and rubbish all scattered there.”

Rose yelled at Ma’a to grab the cashbox and run. Instead of taking off straight out the door, she herself went back around the counter to get her purse. She still wonders if maybe those few seconds would have made the difference to what happened next. Rose ran out the door and tried to cross the busy street. It was school hour and buses battled with cars coming in to town to work. Drivers had no eyes to see the water that was fast approaching them. The surge hit the buildings on the harbor line first, many of them crumbling. Then the tsunami swept into the traffic, pushing buses and trucks into a mad jumble of automotive fury. Rose had just made it to the far sidewalk when she saw it…” out of the corner of my eye I could see the water coming and not long after that, all the buildings and the tool shop, they were right behind me. That’s when I got caught in the tsunami. I was just rolling and rolling, for a long time I was under water.”

As she tumbled in the water, Rose was being bashed by wood and metal debris. “I could feel everything hitting my head. The water was deep because I couldn’t feel the bottom and I couldn’t see anything because the water was so dirty and filthy, filthy, filthy…” Rose was taken to the far end of the street. A virtual dam of debris that used to be the hardware store, landed on top of her. She came up gasping for air only to find herself trapped underneath a sloping roof. There was a narrow pocket of space between her head and the black water. She hung on and hoped desperately the water level would not rise any further. In those next few minutes, Rose heard something she will remember for the rest of her life. Someone, trapped in the water beneath her, scrabbling and scraping wildly against the wreckage for escape.

“I could feel that there was somebody under there. I didn’t know what to do, the water was so dirty I couldn’t see anything…I could feel them creeping and making this scratching noise and then I heard a last breath being released, like a gurgle. I was so scared…I thought oh my God…”

Rose knew when the wave changed its mind and began its retreat to the ocean. It tugged and pulled at her as she struggled against its command to go with it. “When the water started going back to the harbor I could feel my hair going back, getting pulled and I was afraid because I didn’t know whether all the debris was going to shift and the whole thing would just come down and smash me..”

As quickly as it had come, the water left. Rose fought her way out of the wreckage, crawling towards the sunlight. “I kind of pulled away the lumber and wires and fixtures and electrical wire I was tangled in. I stuck my hand out of the mess and yelled for help. A kid came, Michael, he heard me and he called these other three guys to move all the stuff and pull me out. First they were carrying me up the hill but I wanted to try and walk so I could see if I had any broken bones.I stood up and looked back and there was no store left. I started crying because I just thanked God for my blessings because if I had been in the store I don’t think I would have made it. That’s when I started feeling the pain…”

Rose had full body bruises, numerous cuts that needed stitching, a severe head injury, broken fingers. Her face swelled up so badly that she was unrecognizable. “I didn’t want anyone to touch me because I was in so much pain. And I really wanted to wash because I was so filthy. For days afterwards, I could still smell that stink water on me.”

Two days after the tsunami, friends found Rose’s handbag that she had grabbed from underneath the counter. The eight dollars cash was gone, but her passport and money cards were still there. She was able to fly out to Hawaii that weekend to get medical care closer to her children and grandchildren. She laughs as she recalls the look on the Immigration officer’s face when she handed him her tsunami-trashed passport. “Oh that thing stank so bad! Everyone could smell my passport…I hated to even put it in my bag it was so awful…”

Rose couldn’t sleep beside the sea in those first days after the tsunami “I was staying at my cousin’s place and she lives right beside the ocean and I had to go stay at my house inland because I could hear the waves outside and I was so scared just hearing the water.” But now, she has taken steps to overcome that apprehension. She is back at work at the newly rebuilt Tool Shop, looking out over the placid harbor. And she is deliberately staying with a friend who lives beside the ocean. “I have to get over my fear. I remind myself that you need an earthquake before a tsunami comes so we have to just watch out for the signs. I like to go fishing and swimming. So I’m working on it. I look out every day at the ocean to make myself get used to it again.”

Rose Talalotu is a survivor. What keeps her going? “My kids and grandkids. Nobody wants to lose a parent…I want to see my children and grandchildren grow up. Its mostly for them that I survived, strong mind, strong will…the best way to overcome your fears and your struggles? Just face them. It will make you stronger.”

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