Lisala Folau was at sea for about 12 hours, drifting between the islands of Tonga during the night after the tsunami hit his house when he saw a police patrol boat.
Mr Folau, 57, grabbed a rag and waved it, hoping to be rescued from a catastrophe caused by an underwater volcano eruption about 40 miles from Tonga. But the people on the police boat did not answer. Mr. Folow didn’t even make it halfway through his rescue test.
The trials began when Mr. Folau, a retired carpenter, was painting at his home on Atata Island, he told Tongan radio station Broadcom FM, according to a translation of an interview transcript shared by the station’s editor. George Lavaca on Facebook. It was Saturday night and an underwater volcano had just erupted, sending black rocks raining down from the sky and bringing down a wall of water on the islands.
Nearly a week later, the full extent of the destruction in Tonga is still unknown because the disaster caused the failure of an undersea cable needed to communicate effectively with the rest of the world. The explosion also created a huge ash cloud that polluted drinking water sources and prevented relief planes from landing for four days. Despite the scale of the disaster, as of Thursday evening, the death toll was just three.
Shortly after Saturday night’s eruption, Mr Folau’s older brother managed to warn him of the approaching tsunami. Together with his nephew, he tried to help Mr. Folau, who said he was disabled and had difficulty walking because the waves were crashing into the house.
During the lull, they worked with several others to try to reach the high ground in Atata, which has a population of 106, according to Tonga’s 2021 census. Around 7:00 pm, Mr. Folau’s older brother called out to the group that a big wave was coming.
“I just turned around and looked at the wave, it was bigger than the six meters that destroyed our house,” Mr Folau said.
A wave he estimated to be nearly 20 feet carried Mr. Folau and his niece Elisiva out to sea in the dark. Mr Folau heard his son calling, but said nothing.
“I thought that if I answered him, he would come and we would both suffer, so I just floated, broken by the big waves that kept coming,” Mr Folau said.
Mr Folau said he wanted to find land, but he also thought that if he clings to a tree, it will be easier for his family to find his body.
It was about 12 hours later when he saw a police patrol boat heading for Atatu around 7 am.
“I grabbed a rag and waved, but the boat didn’t see me,” Mr Folau said. “Then he was going back to Tonga and I waved again, but maybe they didn’t see me.”
Mr. Folau then attempted to reach Poloa, arriving there around 6:00 pm. “I called for help, but there was no one there,” he said.
Mr Folau said his thoughts were filled with thoughts of his family, including his niece, whom he had not seen since they were swept away, and other close relatives who had health problems.
He said that these thoughts prompted him to get to Sopu, which is on the western outskirts of the capital, Nuku’alofa, on Tongatapu, the main island.
Mr Folau arrived around 9 pm, crawled to the end of the public road, and then used a piece of wood as a walking stick. He walked until he found help from someone in the car. He did not tell the radio station if he knew of his niece’s or other relatives’ condition, and communications with Tonga remained difficult on Friday.
“And it was the manna of God for me and my family, and also for the church and for Atata, so unexpectedly that I survived after being washed away, swam and survived the dangers that I just faced,” he said.
Peter Lund, New Zealand’s acting high commissioner for Tonga, told The Associated Press that Mr Folau’s story fits the timeline of the disaster and the missing person report on Atat. “One of those miracles is happening,” Mr. Lund said.