Man shares harrowing story of survival ‘after being washed away by Tonga tsunami’.


Help finally arrived on Thursday Tonga, five days after a massive underwater volcano smothered the Pacific island nation in ash and obliterated it tsunami waves crashes on its banks. But when the first planes carrying emergency supplies landed on the runway at the recently ash-cleared Fua’amotu International Airport, one survivor’s story in particular captivated people around the world.

Lisala Folau, 57, told Tonga radio station Broadcom FM that he succeeded “after being swept away by the tsunami on Saturday” and struggling through the surf for a day despite his own physical disability.

Tonga Survivor.jpg
Lisala Folau (centre), a Tongan man who says he swam for about 27 hours after being swept into the sea by Saturday’s tsunami, sits with other people from Tonga’s Atata Island during a media presence in Nuku’alofa, Tonga , in a social media image on January 19, 2022.

Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM/via REUTERS

George Lavaka, an editor for the station, posted a full translation of the station’s interview with Folau on his Facebook page.

The extent of the devastation in Tonga, a nation made up of more than 150 islands, caused by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano was still becoming apparent Thursday. Images and videos are created from the South Pacific nation showed toppled buildings and trees covered in ash and littered with debris. At least three people are believed to have died.

The waves began pounding the tiny Tongan island of Atata, where Folau is one of about 60 residents, around 7pm on Saturday. He first climbed trees to escape the tsunami with family members, but they came down when they thought it was safe.

You were wrong.

“My older brother shouted to us that a big wave was coming in. I just turned around and looked at the wave – it was a bigger wave than the twenty-foot wave [wave] that destroyed our house. When the wave broke ashore just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold on to and we were swept out to sea.”

Damaged buildings after volcanic eruption and tsunami in Nuku'alofa
A general view shows damaged buildings after the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, in an image shared with social media on January 20, 2022.

Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM/REUTERS

“We drifted at sea and just called to each other. It was dark and we couldn’t see each other. Very soon I couldn’t call her niece, but I could hear my son calling,” Folau said.

When he heard his son calling for him, he didn’t answer, hoping to protect him.

“The truth is that no son can leave his father,” Folau told Broadcom FM, according to the transcript. “For me as a father, I was silent because if I had answered him, he would have stepped in and tried to save me.”

Folau swam for hours and eventually landed on another of Tonga’s small islands. Around 10 a.m. Sunday, he said he decided to swim to Polo’a Island, which is closer to the main island.

“I finally arrived at 6 p.m. I called and screamed for help, but nobody was there,” Folau said to the sea again.

Satellite imagery of Tonga after volcanic eruption
Maxar satellite imagery of houses and buildings in Tonga before the volcanic eruption and tsunami (left) and afterwards, covered in ash (right).

Satellite Image (c) 2022 Maxar Technologies

“Remember that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly… and if I can, I think a baby can walk faster,” he told the broadcaster of his physical disability.

Finally, around 10 p.m. Sunday, about 27 hours after he was first swept out to sea, Folau said he made it to the main island of Tongatapu and flagged down a car to help.

Officials have said that Folau’s home island of Atata, about five miles northwest of the main island, was virtually leveled by the tsunami.

Tongan military boats were still scouring the country’s smaller, more distant islands on Thursday, evacuating survivors.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Folau’s niece and other family members survived the disaster, and CBS News was unable to independently verify the story he told Broadcom FM. Reuters news agency said his story has gone viral among Tongans online, with one Facebook user dubbing the survivor the “real life Aquaman”.

Folau told the radio station it was “so unexpected that I survived after being washed away, floating and surviving the dangers I just faced.” He offered his “sincere gratitude” to the people of his island, “as well as to the whole country — I know you have prayed for me during the hardships I have been through.”

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