Tongan man survives 27-hour swim after being swept away by tsunami


A 57-year-old disabled Tongan man has been hailed as a “real Aquaman” for reportedly swimming for about 27 straight hours after being washed into the sea during the devastating tsunami.

Lisala Folau told local radio station Broadcom Broadcasting that he painted his house on tiny Atata Island on Saturday night when his brother warned him about the tsunami after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted, the Guardian reported.

He said his brother and a nephew came to his aid when waves slammed into his home.

“We were moving to another part of the house when a bigger wave, I’d guess that wave was no less than twenty feet long, [arrived]’ Folau said, according to a translation of the interview by radio station editor George Lavaka.

“Remember that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly… and if I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than me,” he added. “We hid on the east side of the house, the waves were coming from the west, so we escaped that wave.”

Folau said he and his niece managed to climb a tree to escape the torrential water while his brother ran to call for help.

Lisala Folau was painting his house on Saturday when the wave came.
Facebook / Talivakaola Folau

“When the wave broke ashore right below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold on to and we were swept out to sea,” he told the station.

“We swam on the sea and just called to each other. It was dark and we couldn’t see each other. Very soon I couldn’t hear my niece calling, but I could hear my son calling,” Folau continued.

He said he decided not to answer his son.

Folau was eventually rescued after the harrowing ordeal pictured above.
Folau was eventually rescued after the harrowing ordeal pictured above.
Facebook / Talivakaola Folau

“The truth is that no son can leave his father. But for me as a father I was silent because if I answered him he would jump in and try to save me. But I understand the difficult situation and I thought if the worst happens, it’s just me,” Folau said.

“I was just floating, tossed around by the big waves that kept coming,” he told the radio station.

When he saw a police boat hours later, he waved a rag at it, but the people on board didn’t see him on the way to Atata. He waved again as the boat pulled back, but they missed him again.

Folau kept swimming until he reached the island of Polo’a a few hours later.

“I called and yelled for help but there was no one there. My thoughts are now with my niece, we got washed away together and now I survived,” he said.

“I was now determined to make it to Mui’i Sopu,” he said, referring to a hamlet on the main island of Tongatapu, which he reached after a nearly five-mile swim.

“I thought of my sister at Hofoa who has diabetes and my youngest daughter [who] has heart problems. All of that went through my head,” Folau said.

Eventually he was picked up by a passing motorist.

Folau’s son, Talivakaola, described his feelings about the harrowing ordeal in a Facebook post.

An aerial photo shows the island covered in ash after the volcanic eruption last week.
An aerial photo shows the island covered in ash after the volcanic eruption last week.

“While speaking with my family in Tonga, tears welled up in my eyes as I thought of my father swimming in the ocean after the tsunami,” he wrote. “My heart breaks imagining you drinking in the sea water dad, but you’re a strong-willed man.”

Folau’s compelling account of survival has gone viral.

“Real life Aquaman,” one user wrote on Facebook, referring to the comic book and movie superhero.

“He’s a legend,” wrote another person.

Erika Radewagen, an official of the American Samoa Swimming Association, described his performance as “absolutely amazing, given that he was fleeing a catastrophic event, under the pressure, mentally, and with added physical pressure, of fleeing in the dark.

Damaged buildings are seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga after the volcanic eruption and tsunami.
Damaged buildings are seen in Nuku’alofa, Tonga after the volcanic eruption and tsunami.

“Even very experienced swimmers have physical limits and set parameters, but it takes a different mindset to do what he did,” she told the Guardian.

“It’s not like he fell off a boat. He escaped an erupting volcano that was swept away by a tsunami. There are more physical obstacles like cinders, debris, waves and other factors that would have made his swim much more difficult,” added Radewagen.

Hundreds of homes on the smaller outlying islands of Tonga were destroyed and at least three people died in the tsunami.

With postal wires

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