Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Helter skelter in the summer storm." Gillian Brown's Survivor Story.

Gillian Brown receives care from Aust medics.
On 29/9 oblivious to what would happen, folk went about their morning holiday business. The Tafua family prepared for another one of their delectable community breakfast feasts. I was showering in the ablution block when suddenly everything started to shake. I thought the roof would come off. The past two nights had been stormy. As I live in tropical Queensland I assumed it was similar to a cyclonic wind. I was wrong. It was a tremor. An earthquake. I gave no thought to the imminent Tsunami. A Swedish lady, a German guy and I spoke. We were relieved we were standing on solid ground and it had not separated. How do you know about something if it is out of your realm of experience or concept? Everyone was in a different location and from what I now believe everyone responded differently.

I went back to the Fale and continued to pack for our road trip north to La Vasa. I was carrying my back pack to our hire car when I heard the desperate screams to run for high grounds. I wasn’t sure why but I knew we had to do so. Rob wasn’t in sight. I ran back to the Fale to warn him. I will never forget the mental snapshot I have from the Fale balcony of a young Samoan lad running along the beach screaming at people to go to higher ground. Also the distant view of the two sets of women who unwittingly lolled in the water. I believe two of those four are now sadly dead. I am presently haunted by thoughts of time, space, speed, what if...The words ‘helter skelter in the summer storm’ come to mind.

Rob would not come immediately. He continued to pack his day pack. I expressed the urgency of the situation. Finally we tried to leave the Fale through the front door. This was not to be the case. The clouds of whitewash consumed us from the front and underneath the floor boards. Oh f--- expletives expressed. Rob pushed me to the bed away from the open door. Within the Fale I felt trapped as though I was in a scene from the Wizard of Oz whereby Dorothy floated away in the house. I recall trying to kick the walls away with the hope we would climb through the louvres and escape. I was aware that we needed to prevent the walls from crashing in on us. Odd what you do. The wave was upon us. We were fighting for air space within the confines of the Fale. That first wave took us under and seemed to spit us out quickly.

The battle was still not over. The sea presented another challenge. I was still inside the walls of the Fale. I remember being dragged up with two huge poles firmly squeezed around my neck. It felt as though my neck would snap and fall limp. I apparently contorted my body and kicked the poles apart. Rob and I were in the same space calling for each other. Suddenly large sheets of metal appeared above us. They slid towards us. I thought I was going to be decapitated.

The second wave followed. I can’t speak for Rob but it took me under. I lost him. Initially I fought. Day pack was pulled from my arm. I struggled. Finally I couldn’t take in any more water and I made a conscious decision that if I was about to die I wanted to do it so peacefully. The see-through pool green colour surrounded me and was cleansing. I completely let go, allowing the water to do what it needed to with me. My body was outstretched. I was calm. It was an incredibly beautiful and serene experience. I died.

I have baulked at writing the next section. So many feelings and emotions are attached to survival, trauma and tragedy. I remember so much. I replay the events on my internal movie screen. I was told the wave was travelling at 964km per hour and lasted for approximately 7 to 8 minutes. I had no idea of length of time. There was a third wave. I have absolutely no recollection of it or anything else until I was simply present amongst the debris. No explanation. Just there.

The scenario was and still is incredulous. Finding Rob was foremost on my mind. I screamed for help. I scanned the destruction. It was surreal. Scared, weak. Dragged myself onto a platform. Perched. People started appearing in the water. They were calling for each other. Stranded! A seemingly insurmountable, impassable amount of debris. Urgent need to find others and help them to safety. In shock! Horrible! Survivor mode was necessary. Life was moving in front of us.

A small Samoan child scrambled out of the water to the muddy bank. I will never forget the look on his face. A waif of a child who showed the way. To my right a Samoan woman stood with her baby amongst the chaos. There were so few of us. 50 metres back to my left Rob screaming that he had a bone poking through his leg. Behind me Martina was calling help. Joseph her partner scrambled toward her. Charlie emerged injured and immediately went to the aid of the woman and child. In front of me there was a yellow canoe which became a water stretcher. I carried Martina to the bank first. Hearing our screams for help a young Samoan man ran into the carnage to help me place Rob onto the canoe. Together we balanced it and dragged him to shore.

Our next hurdle was to climb a cliff which was a zigzag path seeming to be about 300metres.
There was an urgent murmur that another wave was coming and we had to run for high ground. We were all injured. Some more so than others and some suffering excruciating pain which was at times debilitating. It was a tale of extraordinary human endurance and support. Together Samoans and foreigners coaxed, motivated, carried and coerced each other to the top of that cliff. It was amazing and unforgettable..

There is a saying that “pigs fly”. Martina, Joseph and I discovered this not to be true. We remembered they rolled like bowling balls ready to skittle human ten pins. What else was nature going to bring? I don’t know what happened to the pigs but thankfully they didn’t hit us.

Sadly the saga did not end at that point. Life emerged at the top of that cliff. A Fale and local farm were steps away. Water. People. Road. Urgency to find higher ground. The ambulant were without shoes. Bits of bandage wrapped around their feet. Utilities carried the injured. Wailing. Screams of pain and distress. Disbelief yet reality creeping in. Folk in shock not sure what to do. Instinct crept in. Surrounded by death and loss. Breathe.

Next was the Lalomanu Medical centre. Survival to be embraced. Finding those who were alive. Relief and tragedy intertwined. Stories told. Blood. Bandages. Injuries recognised. Suffering. Missing children, relatives and mates. Not knowing. Emotional torment. Wailing. Breathe. Medical staff and volunteers compassionately, tirelessly, willingly gave of themselves. Grateful. Thankful.

The Samoan Government sent out a warning that another wave was about to hit. We needed to evacuate the Medical Centre and again relocate to higher ground. Those who could walk did. Injured were transported in utes and trucks. The Tafua family’s house which was at the skeletal stage of construction was generously opened to us. A place of shelter.

It was at this point I became aware that in times of crisis we all bring our different personalities to the fore. Folk took on different roles. Preparing the space for injured. Human chain moving timber. Clearing water from the concrete. Putting down mats. Making sure the injured were as comfortable as possible. Blankets, tarpaulins, water, carrots, Sao biscuits, government register of names. Organising, managing, motivating, nursing. Leaders and doers. Cava man contacting government agencies. Feeling of importance. NZ doctor at the site. People in shock. Sitting wailing. Grief magnifying. Trying to make sense of what had happened.

At this point I was still ambulant. My ribs were broken with deep cuts to the right foot and arm. I could feel the lumps on my head growing. Drying blood. Wound swabs on the ground. Infection growing. Carer mode in place. My first priority was Rob however there were many in need. Horrific stories started to unfold. Children had been ripped out of their parents grasp and taken. Gone forever. Bodies not found. Grief. Too horrible to write. I remember -

*As soon as water arrived, I grabbed it. Knew we’d need it later. Girl photographing
*Water – ambulance – Richard – make sure Robs medical needs are attended to – stay strong -
*Medical centre – swapping patients – some people angry we had to wait - that pregnant woman is now dead.
*Transported to Apia via Lalomanu – destruction – debris – cars not making way for ambulance – now I know some were looters but many were trying to locate the dead– village’s gone, people trying to sweep up an insurmountable amount of debris. Futile Destruction. Despair.
* Ambulance had a flat tyre – transported by ute to hospital – me with Heather Dixon – consulate advisor - mayhem.
*Outpatients – Rob bed opposite – wounds stitched – scared frightened – urgent – separated from Rob – x-ray. Met 50ish Kiwi women who survived swim – Had been in a tidal wave in Hawaii 2 years prior –was in same place as 20 year old girls who died.Pediatric ward turned into surgical ward
*Sam - beautiful Samoan lad whose mother and sister had died and his dad lying in bed with terrible wounds, Sam bought me a cup of coffee, such a generous gesture and it tasted so sweet - people in shock, our bottle the drinking only water for everyone. Ward filling up, toilet floors covered with bloody water, washing people, Rob turning white with blue lips, oxygen mask. *Media crews constantly looming and wanting stories.
*Survivor TV show Drs volunteering time and wound dressings, Samoan nurses doing 24 hour shifts, Setting up a functional ward within 24 hours, an amazing achievement considering many of those nurses didn't know where their loved ones were
*Australian guy who was a volunteer - we had met in supermarket two days prior - now re-meeting under horrible circumstances. He gave us 10ST and NZ Dr gave us 20ST, egg sandwich, coke and water. I was finally getting some treatment to my wounds which just seemed to grow with infection.
*Fa'afafine nurse ‘a woman’s work is never done’.
*Advised that Australian Gov’t would get us home in the next 24 hours. Bill Griggs team arrived with medical supplies. Ambulant were flow back to Oz first. Makeshift ward fully functioning with ward rounds within 24 hours. No sleep. Painful ribs, wounds growing, exhaustion, shock. Samoans give us biscuits and apples. Samoa Survivor reality TV show doctors help and give medical supplies. Overseas news teams everywhere. All wanting to grab a story.
*Gillian and Gary. Distraught over death of their son Alfie. So sad. Claire identifying her friend Vivien in the makeshift morgue. Sorrow. Charlie on her own. Washing the injured. Given clothes from volunteer agencies. Sarong toothpaste and soap. So generous. Shower.Given contact details for relief agency. Long day. Ask Nz Dr to look at my wounds. Less ambulant and very painful. Wounds growing.
*Advised we would be transported home that day. Relief as we were worried that Rob would be operated on in Samoa. Fear of infection and the unknown.
*Comforting each other. Samoan lament which resonated throughout the ward. 6 Aussies transported to the airport to catch C170 Hercules flight. Rob and I separated. Scared and relieved to be going home. Flight late by a couple of hours. Rob on morphine. All of us carried by stretcher onto flight. Fantastic Drs and nurses. Finding veins.

Story still continues and still trying to keep my head above water.
Gillian Brown

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