Thursday, June 24, 2010

All I saw was death coming.

Ask Fineaso what happened. A young man with a welcoming grin, Fineaso has much to smile about. He’s a newly wed and the father of a miracle child. His son Narineaso was born two days before the tsunami and the New Zealand media called him – “the youngest person to survive Samoa’s devastating Pacific Tsunami.” Yes, Fineaso may be living in a tent with no running water and wearing clothes donated by compassionate givers in faraway lands – but his cheerfulness is catching. Especially when he talks about his son. Who was renamed Tsunami after September 29th. “My uncle saved him. We were so happy and relieved that he was alright. It was a miracle.”

That day Fineaso was sleeping in one of the beach fales that the family hired out to tourists. When the wave came he ran to the back house where his sister told him to grab their eighty-five year old grandmother.

“As I reached our old lady, the wave hit us and I was trying to keep her safe. It carried us and I was trying to swim until we reached a branch and so we tried holding on to it. I told her that we’ll wait here and if the wave comes again and carries us or kills us then so be it. I was just worried that a piece of metal would pierce myself or the old lady, but it was God’s will that we were saved.”

The next wave was far more cruel. “When it came it was all black and all I saw was death coming. I grabbed the old lady and we went but there was nothing more we could do because it caught us. But I didn’t let her go…I took her with me, I held her sleeve tightly in my left hand and started swimming with my right and when we got close to the mountain, I carried her on my back.”

Fineaso’s grandmother Fuailuma Sagale, is a wizened little old lady who’s eyes cloud over when she remembers their bewildering journey in the water.“When we got to the mountain he left me there and he went to help the others. I was very worried about everyone. Oh my goodness, this was something so different from anything that has ever happened to our village. My other son helped me up to the top of the mountain and there were so many people up there, small children, elderly people and everyone was congregated there.”

My wife said, 'You just want to be God.'

Molesie and Silaumea Pritchard with their family.

Molesi Pritchard is a man of many talents. An electrician who has been busy since the tsunami, bringing light for his neighbors in their flimsy huts and tents. He’s a baker who would support his four children with sweet baked treats and hot bread. A musician and composer. Molesi cannot read but his wife Silaumea writes down all his songs. Including the new song he has written about the waves in their villages. Which is playing on the radio the day we come to visit.

After the earthquake ended, Molesi told Silaumea that they should go up the hill because there was going to be a tsunami. “My wife said I just want to be God and know everything all the time. But I replied that God doesn’t put anything bad in peoples hearts, he only sends good things and we should listen.”

Molesi scooped up his youngest daughter and started walking to the mountainside. He was midway up the steep cliff on one of many rough tracks when the waves came. He saw his wife and children washed away. He called the emergency number for help and they told him to get to higher ground, that help was on its way.“ I said, please my wife has died. I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t hear her so I thought she had died. Then I called the Red Cross number and asked them please we need help. My wife is dead and a lot of people in our village are dead. All our houses are gone.”

Molesi left his daughter at the top and came down to look for his wife and children. Thankfully she and the children were alive. Injured, but alive. He took them up to the hill where the rest of the village had gathered. On the fifth day after the tsunami, Molesi wrote the first song – about his wife. When he thought she was dead and when she was found. About his village of Saleapaga and how the sea washed it away.

Tsunami never happened in those days.

At Lalomanu, the earthquake felt to Tufaiga Fatuesiafioga “like the ground was going to open up.” She told her mother they should get away from their house on the beach. “My mother said to me that nothing [like tsunami] ever happened in those days. I said to her that those days were different from these days.” When the wave came, Tufaiga was separated from her mother and washed out to sea. A drifting log saved her. Her mother and grandbaby both drowned. Raw grief is a gaping wound in our conversation.

I shut my eyes.

Tina Niusila and her children.

Often it was the elders who resisted the messages of the media tsunami awareness campaign, shrugging the dangers off as “things that only happen in other countries.” Tina Niusila of Saleapaga told her parents they should go to higher ground. “Like what they said on the tv. Nobody was listening to me so I just got my kids together and we walked to the high road with our bag.” Sitting on the hill, Tina couldn’t bear to even look at the wave that engulfed her village. “I shut my eyes, I was too scared to look at it. I could only hear its noise.”

An excuse to make us get some exercise!

James Belford with staff at Poutasi Hospital.

At Poutasi Hospital, the Nursing Manager James Belford remembered previous drills carried out by the Health Department. After the earthquake, with a wary eye on the sea several hundred meters away, he had his staff evacuate the handful of patients a short way up the hill and over the main road. Everyone thought it was a joke and there was much laughter. “Eh – did you ever see a tsunami here?! Of course not…we know you are just finding excuses to make us get some exercise a ea?!” They scoffed at James as they strolled to wait under the shade of the mango tree by the roadside store, but a precise, efficient man, he refused to be budged from adhering to department protocol. There was no laughter when the water came rushing in to the village below them.

Papa, fa'amalosi.

The maximum runup of the Samoa tsunami was 14.5 meters - at Lepa village and 11.4 meters at Lalomanu. A standard two-storey house is eight meters high. Set it in the Samoa tsunami at its worst hit points and you wouldn’t even know it was there. But what does that mean for a regular person like you and me? I am five feet nine. It would take at least seven of me, standing on each others shoulders before I would be able to get my head above water at Lalomanu. What does that mean for a parent with a small child? Like thirty-five year old Maua Toa?

When the wave slammed into their village, Maua grabbed his seven year old son Aukuso and ran. They were smashed into a huge, majestic-sized breadfruit tree. Maua held his son crushed between him and the tree trunk. They were underwater while the sea tried to rip them away. Maua pushed Aukuso up into the branches of the tree, helping him climb higher and higher as the second wave engulfed them again. Higher than the roof of their samoan fale. Sweeping over the edges of their neighbors two storey roof. Maua was exhausted. Debris continued to plough into him, weakening his hold on the trunk. But Aukuso was foremost in his mind.

“When I looked up the wave was on top of us. I couldn’t breathe. The only thing I wanted was some air so my son could breathe…”

Maua shoved Aukuso further up the tree until he was safe. Crying above him in the final, smallest branches. Gulping mouthfuls of the sweet morning air. As Maua battled to keep his head out of the water, he thought about letting go. Giving in. But then Aukuso called to him,“Papa, be strong. If you die, I’m going to jump down so we will die together. Fa’amalosi!”

Maua hung on. A child’s plea gave him the strength he needed. “I did what my son was saying. I ended up being saved because of what my son said, to be strong.”

What i want my grandchildren to remember.

Toetu Tauiliili of Leone, American Samoa, is the man who tried to carry Faatamalii So'oto to safety. Ask the fifty-three year old what he hopes his grandchildren will remember about the tsunami of 29/09 and he answers, “I just want them to remember that their grandfather was trying to save someone’s life and he got hurt from it. And that if I ever see somebody in the same situation as that person, I would do it again.”

Toetu is a not a man that you forget easily. He is tall and well-built, dark-eyed and handsome like the proverbial novels always say of their heroes. He speaks with baritone confidence and assurance. Toetu and his wife had a business in Leone village before the tsunami came. It was a sewing shop and convenience store. They lived at the back of the store and their home dropped down onto the rocky beach. The main road ran directly in front of the store and across the street was a little gas station, two red steel posts skirting the sole gas pump. On one side of their property was Francis Keil’s house. He worked at the Post Office. On the other side was the guest house where the old women came to do their weaving every day, sitting cross-legged in a sea of green coconut leaves. The elderly women were well known to Toetu. They would call out companionably to his children as they left for school and most days, Toetu and his wife would take over lunch for them.

Toetu was home alone that morning. After the earthquake, Toetu tried to warn the women of a possible tsunami. “Me and my friends were outside, looking at the ocean and when we saw it go dry. We went over to the old ladies and were trying to tell them they should go and leave but some of them didn’t take us seriously because nothing like this had ever happened before. So it was hard to try and convince them, not until they saw the water forming up into a wave – that’s when they started running.”

Toetu went to run himself, but as he turned, the plight of the elderly women caught him. “I saw two old ladies, they were having a hard time trying to run, so I went back and tried to help them. At that time, the wave was almost to the shoreline. The other lady, Fa’atamali’i had some physical problems and couldn’t walk good so I picked her up. I kind of put her on my back and told her to hang on tightly to me. Then I was trying to run with her and that’s when the first wave struck me.”

The water smashed Toetu and Fa’atamali’i into the gas station, pinning them against the metal poles. The same wave took Toetu’s van and lodged it on the roof of the gas station. “I got stuck between the rail and debris and it was all cutting me. I got cut on my stomach from the roofing iron and my leg was broken. I was still hanging on to Fa’atamali’i at that time…” The force of the wave dislodged the gas pump, that began spurting black liquid. “The gas pump was leaking, I was covered with blood, the ocean and the gasoline. We were under the water and I was really numb, my body was feeling so weak. I tried to hold on to the old lady…I tried, but her hand slipped out of mine. It’s like she let go…she slipped from my hands.”

Toetu was trapped there until the first wave receded and several men of his village helped to free him, carrying him up the road where a car took him to the hospital. Fa’atamali’i was found after the last waves had returned to the ocean. She was still breathing and attempts were made to revive her but it was too late and she slipped away. Toetu’s wounds are healing, but there are still other scars you cannot see. You hear their rawness though when he speaks of the elderly woman he tried to save.

“She was like a mother to us. I’m from Leone village, I was born and raised here. I knew this old lady, her husband, her children – we all grew up together. She’s like a mother figure to us. Even though we leave and we come back and we’re all grown, she still treated us like we were her kids. That was the sad part about it…”

There is comfort though, for Toetu, knowing that he risked all to help another. “I had an option, I could have just run – but I would have run knowing that she needed help. If I had done that, I think it would have hounded me for the rest of my life, at least I know that I made an effort, I tried.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Maia's Tsunami Story ( Age 5)

During the earthquake I went and got my jandals which were outside of our fale. A coconut fell on our fale during the earthquake.

When we saw a big wave coming, I ran up the hill. I was running with Auntie Diane first and then Auntie Marama.

I wasn’t scared. I saw the wave. It looked like a koru. It didn’t look big but then it got bigger and bigger.

I sat on the hill and looked at the land when the wave had gone, it looked like a flood. I saw helpers who were finding people.

I climbed back down the hill on my bottom and I dropped one of my jandals, but picked it up again.

The taxi was heavy with all of us in there, then we got out and walked up to the school. It was good the school didn’t get flooded and it had some food. We had dinner at the school and we slept in our clothes.

It was good that Suzanne, Ngatau and Nanny survived.
(Maia and her family were on holiday from Auckland, New Zealand. They were staying at Faofao Beach Fales, Saleapaga)

Teone's Tsunami Story ( Age 8)

When the earthquake happened, we were by the girls fale. It was my cousin Matt who told us to run. I looked at the water, it was going fast. It looked like a normal wave when it was on the ocean, but it didn’t look normal when it came on the shore. I decided to sprint. I held my shoes and ran in bare feet. I was running by myself, my sister and my cousins were all in front of me. I saw Auntie Marama telling Nanny to throw her teacup away.

There were people going up a hill and so I leapt and jumped off a rock and climbed up the hill. I got a cut from the rock.

I saw Mum from the corner of my eye getting caught. I saw Ngatau climbing out of the water. I felt a little bit sad because I had lost some of my best toys. We sat on the hill and then moved into the shade. Someone gave us mosquito fly spray that we put on.
It was scary to climb back down the hill. We drove and walked up a hill to a school. We ate at the school. I had rice and chicken for dinner. I felt a lot safer – the biggest tsunami could only reach up to the bottom of the field so we would be safe there.
We slept there that night. It was a bit noisy. My Uncle Graham knows someone who lives in Samoa, his name is Steve and he got his ANZ cars to drive us to his house. Steve lived in Uncle Graham’s old house when he used to live in Samoa.
They took us to the airport. We came back on first-class. The best things about first-class were we could watch movies, listen to music, and your chair turned into a bed.
My scariest memory was when the tsunami nearly got me.
My best memory was getting the flight back home on the second day and being in first class.
(Teone and family were staying at Faofao Beach Fales at Saleapaga.)