“There it came on the radio – a tsunami alert issued for the whole of Tonga. We sit in my car in the longest queue… completely overwhelmed. It literally feels like an apocalyptic horror movie but worse, much worse. I can not describe the feeling. To see my daughter crying in the passenger seat crying together and asking if we would be okay, ask about the rest of our family. ”
To Tevita Fukofuka, who was in the capital Nuku’alofa on the fateful day the South-South Ha’apai volcanic eruption, it was a moment that was etched in his memory for a lifetime. Tevita, a young father and local government worker, came to Facebook over the weekend to post an emotional diary entry he wrote last week, 24 hours after his country’s troubling ordeal.
At around 18:00 local time (0400 GMT) the first audible explosion sounded from the now infamous volcano.
“I thought it was a big truck’s blown tire or something,” Tevita recalls. “I looked around confused in the road, then a second blow; I thought it sounded like cannons going down nearby. But the third explosion was much louder and sounded like it was just above my head; I knew it was that damn volcano and something was very wrong. “
Numerous cars had already begun to form long queues as people rushed to move inland, away from the coast. But Tevita could not yet join them. When he put his car in reverse, he was probably one of the few vehicles moving in traffic when he rushed to pick up his young daughter, Lote si’i, who had just been dropped off at a family member’s place. .
“However, I was so confused, because that volcano is all the way in Ha’apai; far away, ”Tevita later recalled to Al Jazeera. The volcano is about 66 km (41 miles) across the sea from the main island of Tongatapu.
“Just when I came to my daughter, the loudest ‘bang’ came. It felt like heaven was bursting open and the world was exploding in my ear. I have never heard a louder noise in my entire life. ”
“If death had a sound, it would be it.”
As the sound echoed through his head, everything around him shook violently.
“The car, house, earth – everything shook. I looked up at the sky and saw hundreds of birds flying in every direction. I felt scared but tried not to show it. My daughter jumped into the car trembling and crying. As I hurried to the petrol station, I tried to assure her that everything would be fine. ”
There was no way for Tevita and his fellow Tongans to know at that moment that NASA would later continue to estimate the volcanic eruption as equivalent to five to six million tons of TNT – and 500 times as powerful as the Hiroshima nuclear explosion.
They also could not imagine that the eruption would cause a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean, or trigger a sonic surge that would zip twice around the world.
When Tevita and Lote finally joined the sea of cars swinging through the city buffer to buffer, the only thought that raced through their heads was ‘survival’.
“Then came a deafening sound of dovetail rain in the form of pebbles, ash and dust,” Tevita recalled.
“We could hear how it sprayed the roof of our car and the houses along the road. The sky became completely dark. The density of the ash clouds emanating from the volcano changed day into night. ”
Between the storm of rocks and ash, the sound of volcanic explosions and a tsunami warning ringing over the radio, the whole scenario felt surreal.
Tevita tried to stay calm; if he could only reach Tofoa or Pea, he would be far enough inland, he thought. Through a series of angry calls from other family members, he learned that their vehicle was still dragging far behind him – trapped in the vehicle swell of an entire country that was on the move.
Tevita noticed two car accidents along the road and decided to pull into a parking lot next to a home improvement store. The store had a porch with a roof in which he and his daughter could hide if the ash rain got worse.
“My friend, Jonathan, called me just as I was parking my car and told me to drive to the Tonga Water Board, which is on a hill nearby. I quickly started moving again. Our fuel tank was almost empty and I prayed we would make it. The distance from the base to the top of the hill is only about 120 meters [394ft], but it took us an hour in the long queue. Everyone’s car towels were moving at full speed, trying to clear enough of the falling axle to see. It felt like we were going blind. ”
NASA estimated it the volcano’s plume of ash and gas shot into the stratosphere about 30.5 km high, with some parts reaching as far as 55 km (34 miles).
With no internet connection, Tevita tried to keep in touch with family through text messages and calls. The local radio station, 90FM, was miraculously still on the air. At the top of the Waterraad hill, young men drove hundreds of cars into the windy, dusty darkness. They wore makeshift t-shirt masks and hats in an attempt to breathe.
“One boy in particular carried a plastic washbasin on his head. The sight of him finally made my daughter smile, and I felt a little relieved when we found a parking space. ”
‘The whole city looks gray’
Meet Tonga’s “real Aquaman” who says he swam for about 27 hours after being swept to sea during the tsunami 👇 pic.twitter.com/mAHd6dFO22
– Al Jazeera Engels (@AJEnglish) 22 January 2022
One by one, Tevita’s family members contacted him to tell him they were safe. However, no one has heard of his parents yet. Fear arose in his chest, he asked little Lote if she would be ready to get out of the car with him so they could go look for grandma and grandpa.
“She put on a brave face and said ‘yes’. Then she made herself a mask of a dress she had found in the car. I covered my head with a jacket while we held hands and stumbled into the darkness. My parents were not at the shelter, but we saw about a hundred women and children inside. Fortunately, my sister finally made contact with my parents later that evening. ”
As the evening wore on, Tevita saw his friend Jonathan approach his car with masks, apples for Lote and cigarettes for him – small luxuries that felt like an outcome in an upside-down world.
“We tried to go to sleep with the hundreds of people around us in their cars. We heard people singing hymns in the shelter. Shoots insisted on keeping the radio on to keep us company. I was worried about the car battery, but 90FM kept us informed – and it made us feel safer, calmer. ”
Locked in their car, they were still unsure if the eruptions were over.
In the distance, the ancient volcano rumbled loudly through the night. After a few hours of hard sleep, Tevita woke up just after sunrise and found that about half of the vehicles were gone.
“I noticed that the falling axle had stopped, so I woke up my daughter and tried to scrape as much ash off the car’s windscreen to be able to drive home. The radio station said the volcanic activity had decreased in the previous three hours, but the tsunami warning was still in place. There was also a shortage of drinking water in many areas. ”
“We slowly came home in disbelief. The whole city was gray with ashes. ”
In the days before the explosion on January 15, the Tonga Geological Services warned of impending eruptions and a possible tsunami, which ordered locals to stay away from the beaches. Volcanologists now believe that it was this preparedness that probably led to thousands of lives being saved.
At first glance, it seems that Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai has fallen silent. Tongans helped each other get through the damage and clear the streets, with international aid from Australia, New Zealand and Japan starting to land in the country.