A single mother’s struggle during the 15th of January, Volcanic Eruption, Tonga. “I have never cried this much in all my life.”
In December last year, Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai started erupting and reached large and powerful climax on 15 January 2022. The eruption triggered a tsunami that travelled worldwide and produced the highest plume of steam and ash in recorded history. Scientists say the towering column that arose from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai reached a tremendous altitude of 57 kilometers (35 miles) above sea level making it the first-ever volcanic eruption seen to have punched completely through the stratosphere to breach the mesosphere. As scientists continue to study the volcano, life goes on for most Tongans on the island. However, the nightmare of that dark day still haunts many.
When the second wave hit us, I knew it was already too late to evacuate. I grabbed my 8-year-old daughter, 2-year-old son, and together with my sister and her two toddlers, we tried to escape in our mini, cube-shaped car.
We live in Faua, located close to the shoreline and opposite the Taufa’ahau Wharf. At this time, our vehicle had already started to float as the waves flooded the area.
The only option we had was to escape inland on foot. As soon as we got out of the car, the third wave came crashing through the seashore. When it retreated, the force was so strong it pulled my nephew away from my sister and carried him towards the ocean. I had to let go of my daughter’s hand and with my 2-year-old son in one arm, I started pushing through the waves and managed to grab my nephew.
“The waves were so strong that I saw my daughter disappear underwater, maybe she fell that the sea covered her completely. At that moment I just stood there crying and shouting her name at the top of my lungs. Suddenly I can see her from afar as the waves retreated to the ocean. Following the retreat, I can see another wave crashing through the shore towards us. I shouted to my daughter to run inland, and I can see she didn’t turn back but kept running and running. I didn’t pause to take a breath. I kept shouting Liti run, run Liti, run Liti as I was struggling through the waves towards her with my son in one arm and nephew on the other. When we reached the intersection, we had already separated with my sister and her children. But when we were evacuating, I remembered my mother was right behind us and the only thing that came to my mind was that waves had already pulled my mother into the ocean because when we were floating inside our car, I saw the waves crash through her vehicle, so I thought that the waves have pulled her into the ocean.
At the top of my voice, I shouted to my daughter, “run baby, just run” but she was already a few meters away from us and struggling to keep afloat.
As I moved towards her, my heart dropped as I watched her disappear underwater. With all the strength I had left, I fought through the waves, screaming for my daughter at the top of my lungs with my son in my left arm and my nephew in my right.
There was no sight of her.
I stood there numb as I watched the waves retreat to the ocean. I silently and so desperately called her name.
Thankfully, when the waves cleared up, I saw my daughter holding on to a tree from afar. I believed she got stuck in something which prevented the waves from pulling her back into the ocean. I hurried towards her as my sister grabbed her son from my arms.
We continued in land towards the intersection in Siamelie, the waves had separated me from my sister and her children. Soaked and covered with volcanic ash, I gave my daughter a piggyback ride and my son wrapped around my arms. A vehicle heading for Fanga saw that we were struggling beside the road and stopped to give us a ride. When we reached Fanga, I carried my son in my arms and held my daughter’s hand. It was approximately 7pm but the sky was dark as night, rocks started falling from the sky and the volcanic ash had clouded the area.
“My eyes are hurting, mom,” cried my son. I asked them to keep their eyes closed as we ran beside the road. I could feel my son’s grip around my shoulders tighten and I knew they were both terrified.
There was a long queue of vehicles on the road as people were evacuating to higher grounds.
I recall that it had been over 10 vehicles I had passed asking for help and was rejected every time. Even vehicles with no passengers but the driver alone, and still no one was willing to lend a hand. Struggling to carry my son, I asked my daughter to run in front of me instead. Suddenly I heard shouting and cursing from the vehicles, and I realized my daughter had crossed to the middle of the road.
She seemed disoriented and frightened. I rushed towards her and held her close to me while struggling to see through the ash fall.
With teary and fearful eyes, she looked up to me and whispered, “mommy I’m cold.”
“I have never cried this much in all my life. When she said, “Mommy, Mommy, I’m cold” I didn’t know what else to do. All I said to her was, “Liti, hold on tight to mommy, just a little further”. With tears rushing down my face I didn’t give up, calling for help to the vehicles on the road, but no one stopped for us. Even big vehicles with a lot of space, no one stopped. They even cursed at us and yelled at us to get off the road. I couldn’t stop crying, because during the volcanic ash fall, we were in the middle of the road at the time.”
I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer, I was lost, I was terrified and helpless.
I pulled her close to me and said, “everything will be fine baby, just a little further.” I thought maybe the vehicles wouldn’t stop for us because we would be too much of a crowd, so I decided to ask for a ride for just my children instead. All I needed to know was where they would be heading, and I would find a way to get there on foot. At least then, I would know my children would be safe and far from the shore.
Yet not one vehicle stopped for us. With tears running down my face, I held my daughter tight and continue running towards Havelu. I kept looking back to see if the waves have caught up with us and kept watch of the streetlights knowing that if it goes off, that will mean that the waves have reached Fanga.
We continued running towards Havelu Middle School when a vehicle finally stopped for us. When the door opened, I could see that they were crowded, men, women, and children. I begged the driver to only take my children because they are small enough and would not require much space. I asked for their address but the driver insisted that I came along and so I struggled past an elderly woman and sat on the floor in the back seat with my children. As soon as we left, I let out the most painful yet grateful cry. All I remembered saying was, “Malo..Malo,” ‘Thank you!’ “Thank you!” with tears pouring down my face.
The elderly women tried to calm me down, but I could not control my tears. The driver took us to his home in Pea, gave us clothes to change and food to eat.
Looking back at that whole experience I realized, not once did I feel tired nor cold or out of breath. I had been carrying my son and daughter on my back for hours and sometimes held her hand by myside. We were soaked and covered with volcanic ash. But not once did I feel cramp or pain except for the fear and the tears shed that day as I struggled to remain calm and strong for my children.
Eleven months has passed, and my daughter still has nightmares of that day. She would wake up in the middle of the night crying frantically and screaming, “the sea mommy, the sea!” I remembered a month after the eruption while I was sitting at work, I read online that there was another Tsunami warning. Instantly, I got in my vehicle and headed home to pick up my children and evacuate to one of my relative’s houses in Vaotu’u. It was not until a few hours passed that I found out, the warning was false.
Even the sound of scorching on the floor from moving the office desks or a loud bang would instantly trigger my memory of the eruption and send me running home for my children. The CEO of our Ministry suggested that I take some time off after hearing what had happened. But my parents insisted that the best thing for me was to go to work and to keep my mind busy. I remember recently, we had a Tsunami-escape training at work and when the test alarm sounded, I didn’t know that we were only supposed to run to the other side of the road because I ran all the way to the Fakafanua building a few blocks from the office before I realized, everyone had already stopped.
Since the eruption, I have prepared a bucket filled with first aid kits, canned food and beverages and stored inside my vehicle. I even drew and memorize evacuation routes. We are healthy physically, but mentally, I don’t know if we will ever be able to fully recover. The fear of almost losing my children and the painful and terrified look on their faces will haunt me for the rest of my life.
One of the most important things I learned was the importance of remaining calm. Looking back, I realized that we had ran past several homes of friends and families and it did not occur to me once to stop by and call for their help. I panicked and did not think clearly especially during chaos. It’s important to take a deep breath and try to be in control of your emotions.
To the family that took us in, even with a crowded vehicle you stopped for us regardless, and for that, I will forever be in your debt. I am so grateful to God for the indescribable strength he gave me that day to persevere. It is my hope that we do not let our fear get in the way of our compassion and humanity.