Disabled Tongan Man Swept Away by Tsunami Saves Himself by Swimming for 26 Hours Between Islands
© AP PhotoThis satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, and released by the agency, shows an undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. An undersea volcano erupted in spectacular fashion near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday, sending large waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground.
© AP Photo
An unprecedented disaster has hit the Tonga Kingdom aftfer the underwater Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcanic eruption on 15 January. The eruption was followed by tsunami waves rising up to 15 metres and hitting almost all the islands of the Pacific nation while leaving some of them, such as Mango, Atata, and Nomuka destroyed.
Amid stories of devastation across Tonga, an archipelago of 170 islands, of which only 36 are inhabited, the bravery of a disabled survivor, Lisala Latu, on the isle of Atata, is drawing accolades from people across the Pacific.
Latu was washed away by the tsunami, triggered by Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcanic eruption on 15 January. Still, he managed to survive by swimming for 26 hours until he reached the main island of Tongatapu.
Narrating his story to the local radio station Broadcom Broadcasting 87.5fm, the retired carpenter said he crossed two uninhabited islands in the South Pacific Ocean during his life-saving journey of 13 km across the sea from Atata Island to Tongatapu.
PM of #Tonga, @totisova & @AustHCTonga, Ms Rachael Moore, witnessed the arrival of the first #AusAirForce C-17A Globemaster III aircraft at Tonga’s Fua’Amoto International Airport as it delivered the first load of aid. Mālō Aositelelia e ofa. 🇦🇺 🇦🇺 🇹🇴 🇹🇴#OpTongaAssist @dfat pic.twitter.com/BxLIk6vjcZ— Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga (@ConsulateKoT) January 20, 2022
Latu shared that he was painting the wall of his home at Atata Island, nearly 50 kilometres away from the volcanic eruption, when back-to-back tsunami waves hit his house on the fateful day.
Stating that he is disabled in both the legs and even "a baby can walk faster than him", Latu shared that on that day, he climbed up a tree with his niece while his elder brother ran to seek help from youth on the higher grounds of the island.
Once there was a lull in the waves, they climbed down. But just then, an enormous wave over 10 metres high hit the island.
"When the wave broke on land just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold onto, and we were swept out to sea. It was 7 p.m. We floated at sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark, and we could not see each other. Very soon, I could not hear my niece anymore, but I could hear my son calling," he narrated.
Latu decided not to answer his son, fearing the son would risk his life to save him.
"My thinking was if I answered him, he would come, and we would both suffer. So I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming," he said.
During his battle to survive, Latu thought that if he clung to a tree trunk, the rescue team might find him, and his family would at least be able to see his dead body.
18 January 2022, 17:01 GMT
There were two occasions when he saw patrol boats making rounds to Atata Island when he was grounded to the east of the island of Toketoke. "I grabbed a rag and waved, but the boat did not see me," he said.
Then Latu felt mentally strong and started off his journey to the western edge of the capital city Nuku'alofa where his family resides.
"I was thinking about my sister in Hofoa, who suffers from diabetes, and my youngest daughter has heart problems. All these were racing in my mind," he added.
By 9 p.m. on Sunday, Latu finally reached the western edge of the capital Nuku'alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu. His arduous journey to his family home ended late Sunday night after he'd crawled from the coast to the main road and then walked with the help of a wooden stick till he received support from a driver.
"The people of the village were shocked (that I survived)," he smiled.
Latu has yet to learn the whereabouts of his son, nephew, and niece. However, the Tongan government has declared only three deaths so far, including two locals -- one over 60 years old, as well as a British health worker.
Many people have appreciated the amazing story on social media.
"Inspirational. Miracles really happen," George Tami, one of the Facebook users, commented. Kristine Peter, a Fiji resident, said that despite the volcanic eruption and the tsunami, "God does protect his people."