Thursday, June 24, 2010

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.”

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