Although the first two explosions from the volcano were frightening enough, the third was even more terrifying. It sent everyone running for their lives in an emergency that could save only one person’s life.
Even though it is more than five weeks since Mango Island’s earthquake, Mango Island children still run and cower when they hear thunderclaps or loud noises.
Tonga’s small island was the closest to the Jan. 15 South Pacific volcanic explosion. This event was so large that it produced a sound that could be heard in Alaska, and a mushroom plume that was visible in stunning images from space. Every home on Mango Island was destroyed in the tsunami that followed.
All 62 survivors were saved by boat and transported to Nuku’alofa in Tonga’s capital. They have lived together ever since in a church hall. They’ve spent most of their time locked up since Tonga’s first coronavirus outbreak.
In an interview with The Associated Press, two survivors spoke out about their lives and uncertain futures. The interview was translated by an official of the Tonga Red Cross.
Sione Vailea (52), said Mango Island was the most beautiful place he has ever seen and that nothing in Tonga compares. He said that the island was home to just 14 families, many of which lived in close proximity to each other in one village.
Each family had a small boat with an open side. If the weather was good, they would head out onto the ocean to catch snapper, reef fish, octopus, and lobster.
They would sell what they couldn’t eat and get enough money to buy food. It took six hours to return to the capital for those who had a decent-sized boat engine. For those who were lucky enough to have one, it could take twice as long if they used 15 horsepower.
Mango Island lies just over 20 miles (32 km) from the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai Undersea Volcano. This volcano had erupted in late 2014. It created a small island and temporarily disrupted air travel with a series eruptions.
These were nothing in comparison to the magnitude of the eruption that occurred on Saturday night in January. The islanders ran from their village on Mango Island, which was at the lowest point, after hearing the third huge boom.
Vailea stated that although there were no signs of a tsunami coming, her gut feeling was that we should get to the top because we didn’t know what was happening.
Vailea, the island’s designated town officer checked that everyone was present. Vailea noticed that one family was not present.
Sulaki Kafoika (72 years old), another survivor who goes by Halapaini, or talking chief, which was bestowed on him by Tonga’s king. He said that once he reached the top of the hill, it was then that he saw back. He could see the waves breaking against their homes. He had never seen anything like it.
Vailea climbed back down the hill to see the wife, his two daughters and the son of a 65 year-old man rising up. The waves had taken the man away.
Vailea stated that he was the first to be struck by the tsunami. “Because they were trying to climb to the top of the island, he died.”
The tsunami also claimed the lives of two other Tonga residents, including a British citizen. A fourth victim died of what authorities called related trauma. The tsunami reached Peru across the Pacific Ocean, where it caused an oil leak and drowned two more people.
Mango Island was hit hard by the tsunami, and night fell quickly. Villagers huddled on top of hills to avoid the darkening. To protect their children and women from the falling ash and volcanic rocks, men wore blankets over the children and women throughout the night. They were isolated and alone after the tsunami cut off all internet and phone connections.
They walked down the hill to find the body of the drowned person at dawn. They found a small shovel, and an axe among the wreckage. After they had struck rock approximately 1 meter (3 ft) below, they dug a grave.
They had no food and all their boats were gone. Vailea stated that they discovered two small bags of rice in the village and cooked it for the children. As they waited, the adults didn’t eat anything that day or next.
On Tuesday morning, a boat from a nearby island arrived to check on the group. The neighbors brought along some cassava, a root vegetable and several plantains that are similar to bananas.
Vailea said, “They cooked it and that was the best meal.” It wouldn’t be considered a good meal on a regular day. It was special on Tuesday.
They were then all taken to Nomuka Island, and then to Nuku’alofa (the capital), where they have lived ever since. They have never been to Mango Island. They were locked down until Sunday after the spread of the virus. It was most likely brought in by foreign military personnel delivering critical aid.
Although it’s been hard for survivors to cope with trauma and lockdown restrictions over the last few weeks, it has been immensely helpful that they all have been living together and were able to support one another. The clothes, food, and money donated by people all over the globe have helped them.
It is not clear what will happen next. Vailea, a town officer, has been meeting with Tongan officials regularly but stated that the final decision on whether or not they can return to Mango Island and resettle it is up to Tonga’s government, and King Tupou VI, the monarch. They hope to hear a decision in the next few weeks.
Vailea stated that Mango Island’s people are divided, with some wanting to go back and others looking to start a new life in Nuku’alofa. He stated that it was his duty to support his people’s wishes.
Halapaini stated that he feels mixed emotions. He said that Mango Island was home to all the good things he had in his life. But he worries about the possibility of the volcano erupting again.
Vailea is more emphatic. Vailea is more determined to return to Mango Island. It’s a place where life can be difficult but you have your own time and can share it with your neighbours. You wake up every morning to go fishing.