You know that feeling you get when you’ve forgotten something but you don’t quite know what it is? You’ve left the house, you’re on your way to work – and you have that niggling feeling that you’re not quite complete?
Rita Romeo, 36 - of Lalomanu had that feeling on September 29th. As she chased her children up the steep embankment at the back of their beach fale operation. As she tried to tell her guests to follow them to the mountain. As she went back to scream at tourists who were holding tightly to the posts of her dining fale, telling them – “Don’t be stupid, those posts won’t save you! You have to run up the mountain. Run!”
As she watched the girl who owns the ice cream shop on the beach, turn back and run to her house as if she had forgotten something, ignoring Rita’s shouts.“Come back! Cant you see the wave is here? Come back. We have to run.”
As she saw the girls house collapse in the wave with a loud banging sound.
As she scrambled up through rocks and bushes. Pulling on roots and branches to get up the steep mountainside. Turning to grab an older palagi woman by the arms, scraping her bare legs raw as she dragged her up and over rocks.
Even as she gasped for breath at the top of the hillside, watching the ocean consume their village, their home, the twenty open beach fales they rented out to visitors for a day, a night, a weekend. Yes, even then, Rita had that terrible feeling that she had forgotten something. Or someone.
Rita has eight children. The youngest still toddles over to nurse. At the close of day, as sunset burned the evening sky, Rita would usually take a few moments to sit in the main fale with her child at her breast – a few moments of contentment as she surveyed the tourist operation that she and her husband had worked so many years to build/develop. They were extending their business – a restaurant and a roadside store. A White Sunday opening was planned.
But on that desperate Tuesday, as she stood with her family and guests on the mountainside, Rita realized with horror what she had forgotten. Her six year old son Livi. Asleep in the bedroom when the wave came.
Who can know what she endured as she waited for the water to recede? “After the wave finished I felt sadness. As I looked out over the villages there were no houses. All I said was ‘oh Lord what have we done to deserve this?’ I felt so much grief when I heard people crying, wanting to live. I thought Livi was dead too. I couldn’t do anything.”
It didn’t seem possible that anyone could survive the ocean beast. But Livi did. An hour after the tsunami, he was found underneath a pile of rubble. “He was found by a woman named Salome. She said she saw him crouched down under all the wood and roofing. He must have been trying to get up for breath but he couldn’t because of the debris. Many people were under all that rubbish. Salome saw a body down there close to where she was standing and then she reached down to bring it out and he came up and it was my child and he was alive.”
Livi’s chest was cut and badly bruised. He had ingested a lot of seawater and would need some serious antibiotics for the infection. But two weeks later, he would be his usual mischievous self. Pestering the team of Australian army volunteers who came to clean their beach with amazing machines that could drive into the ocean, growling over coral on the sea floor.
Rita would watch him run over golden sand beside crystal water and shake her head in quiet awe. “We are thankful to the Lord for sparing us and our eight children. Especially my son Livi who was lost and then was found.”