February 9, 2022

‘We Locked Arms and Waded in the Waters’

Tonga tsunami survivors share their experience.

Kalesi Ravouvou, for Adventist Record

Seventh-day Adventist teachers Kalesi Ravouvou and Gwenda Vovo were at the Tonga Mission compound of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on January 15 when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted and a tsunami wave hit. As the rising waters flooded the compound, they made their escape. Here they share their experience.

Around Thursday midday on January 13 we received a tsunami warning. We were packing at that time, for we had been told that we would be moving to the Beulah Adventist College compound. Hence, our stuff was everywhere.

However, the next day, around 10:00 p.m., we received the news of a cancelled tsunami warning. So we went to bed that night thinking all was well. The next morning, we had plans to visit a church member. We were both looking forward to that visitation in the afternoon.

On January 15, the day of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption, Tonga Mission president Fanueli Mataele invited us to accompany his family to their home at Loma Linda, which is located inland. However, due to our plans, we wanted to stay and get ready for the visitation.

Around 5:00 p.m., we decided to have an early dinner before the visit. During our dinner preparation, we heard the first explosion. Since the volcano had erupted once before, we thought it was just another eruption. However, this time it was louder and was continuously erupting. Due to our location, a few steps away from the waterfront, we could clearly see the eruption taking place. The smoke that rose from the eruption travelled within seconds across the sky, reaching our home.

We ran out of the house, for we felt the vibration everywhere around us. When we were outside, the volcano erupted again. It exploded three times; the ground was shaking. We could see lightning flashing as the smoke continued to be released from the volcano. We quickly walked back home due to our fear. Upon reaching our verandah, the third eruption occurred. This time it was so loud that it hurt our ears and blocked them. We were shouting, but we couldn’t hear each other.

We ran inside the house as quickly as we could, grabbed our backpack and ran to the second floor of the mission office building. From the balcony of the president’s office, we witnessed the rising sea level. It rose high above the sea wall coming inland, entering the mission compound.

The huge waves started coming in. The waves were so strong that the gates and fence could not withstand them. The walls broke and fell. At the back of us was a creek, and we were surrounded by a fence; the only way out was through the gate that was already broken from the waves where the sea was coming in.

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Gwenda Vovo returns to her house after the tsunami in Tonga. [Photo: Tonga Mission, for Adventist Record]

Knowing what would happen after a volcanic eruption — that lava would be flowing (which did not happen), and the falling of volcanic rocks and heavy ash — we decided to try to escape from where we were but thought to wait for 15 minutes. Within those 15 minutes, Fanueli was calling nonstop. He left immediately from his home, taking all possible shortcuts to reach us as there were many traffic jams in the country. Scared, panicked, we prayed and waited patiently.

But after 15 minutes of witnessing the destruction, we decided to go. We locked arms, and we waded sideways in the waters against the strong current until we reached the fence. The water level was up to our chest. When a strong wave came in, it nearly carried us away, but we stood firm on the ground with arms locked, waited for it to pass, and then continued. When we reached the fence, we climbed and ran out of the compound. We continued to quickly wade in the water until we reached a place where the water stopped.

This was happening until the last ray of light. As soon as we stepped out of the water, total darkness covered Tonga. We were running in darkness till we reached the junction at the local telecommunication centre. There the cars were running, people escaping, volcanic rocks falling, hitting us, but we continued to run inland. We ran and met the water again that came up from another side of the road, but we continued running, not knowing where we were running to.

We ran until we reached one of the main roads. We saw a new, double-storey building that was owned by the A3Z broadcasting corporation. As soon as we reached the building the heavy ash started to fall.

We just thank God for His protection. I think it was the owner of the building who called us in and let everyone take shelter in the building. There were other people there too, taking shelter in the building, and then the internet connection went off.

Fanueli arrived and took us to his home. There we were fed and spent the night. Saturday (Sabbath) morning came, we had our devotion, and Fanueli asked if we wanted to go and see the mission office compound. We agreed, and we headed back to the compound.

When we had left the compound the previous night our house was still standing and the mission office was still intact. Along the way, we saw the destruction. Houses and everything around them were covered with thick ash. Everything that day was only one color, the color of the volcanic ash. The waterfront was badly damaged. The footpath that we once had walked on to and from work was broken and thrown around. The big coral rocks that were used as a seawall were tossed everywhere inland. Everything was completely destroyed.

Upon our arrival at the mission compound, we were dumbfounded and shocked by what we saw. No words exchanged, only silence. Our house was destroyed. Our belongings were all destroyed. The mission office and equipment, books, and all other things were destroyed. We have never felt so homesick and discouraged. God had called us to come and serve Him in Tonga, and this is what we got?

After the eruption we have been having sleepless nights — all we can think of is going back home. But we thank God for the love, prayers, and support from our families abroad and in Tonga, and that we are safe.

The original version of this story was posted by Adventist Record.