Our day of death

First Published: 30 September 2009

A day which in the morning looked as it was just another day became one I’ll never forget, For how can I? I drove with dead bodies in my car, helped carry dead people, weaved through wreckage on badly damaged roads, searched for doctors to help and helped tourists stranded with no money and absolutely nothing. 

Yesterday was an extraordinary day. The fact, I’m still breathing and able to write this piece is enough to be thankful for. 

Others are not so lucky. It began with the rude wakeup call from the earthquake which apparently measured 8.0 on the Richter scale. 

At the dawning of another working day, Fagali’i started shaking like never before. It felt like eternity. 

Evacuation procedures meant I had to quickly get my children and family to Samoa College or the National University of Samoa. That done, it was time to head to work. 

Traffic was relatively free in parts of town as most cars were advised to stay as far away from the coastal areas as possible. 

There were cops everywhere. So it meant a quicker trip to Falealili. “It’s good you have come,” one Poutasi resident yelled out at the sight of the Samoa Observer vehicle.

“Take a look over there, everything has been wiped. There is a road there at the school which will be able to take you down to the beach.” 

“The bridge has broken.” This is the bridge which connects Poutasi. “It was blown away like a piece of stick,” another villager said. Upon quick examination, Poutasi was a wreck. 

Cars were tossed everywhere, fishing boats were piled on the road and the school building was partly destroyed. Closer to the beach, houses were flattened. Family homes disappeared. 

There was debris everywhere. “We didn’t have time to run,” Ioane said. 

“It just came and took everything”. He was talking about the tsunami wave. “After the earthquake, there were people who hesitated but there were also people who just got out of their houses and ran,” Ioane said. 

“The wave was about four meters high. It was fast, it was strong.” 

The wreckage in Poutasi proved just how strong it was. 

Apart from a few buildings standing, everything was flattened. Many lives were lost. 

“My mother survived because I told her to hang on to our house and don’t let go,” said 40 year-old Talanoa Magele. “I was standing inside my store when I saw the wave. I just yelled out to everyone to run.” 

“I told my Mom not to leave the house but hold on to the blocks as much as she can. My other brother helped her. I didn’t care about the material things.” 

“All that mattered was my life. I survived because I ran to the coconut tree, climbed up and hung on for life.” 

His mother survived. But not so lucky were other villagers. Among them was the wife of Poutasi’s paramount chief, Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale. 

“She was found under a pile of things,” Mr Magele said. “He is a respected man in the village and she was a wonderful woman.” 

A Reverend’s wife was also killed along with several children. Not far from Mr Magele’s house, members of another family were combining through the wreckage hoping to find their elderly grandmother. “She is likely to have been swept to the sea because she is not a strong woman,” Mr Magele said. “Out there,” he said pointing to the reef “there’s likely to be more dead people stuck under the corals.”

What the villagers were able to find quickly, however, was plenty of dead fish. 

Young men were walking around with large snappers, anae and cans of herring and corned beef. 

“This is our present from the tsunami,” one said waving his can of pisupo. 

The phone rang. It was an official calling us to come to shore as there could be another wave. 

We did not and quickly drove away from Poutasi, heading towards Lalomanu. 

At Salani, it seemed the damage was not as bad. On the radio, we heard the hospital at Lalomanu needed immediate help. 

And how fortunate I was to bump into a couple of doctors standing on the side of Salani bridge, with just a pair of shorts and nothing else. 

“I’m a doctor from Sydney and I was wondering if you knew of somewhere where I can be of help?” he asked. 

He had another doctor friend who came with us. “We’ve lost everything,” they told me. “All we have is our passports.”

So off we went to Lalomanu. Nothing prepared me for what I saw next. At Lepa, the Prime Minister’s village, the coastal area was completely wrecked. Houses were swept away and people just stood there, not knowing what to do. 

The road was filled with rocks Emergency vehicles were weaving in and out trying to find their way through. Saleapaga was just as bad. 

All the beach fales were gone. All was left to see were pieces of sticks lying around. 

Boomerang Greek (that’s what it was called), an old favourite of this writer was no more. Completely wiped. 

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Just up the road at the Meredith property, their brick fence was uprooted and dumped on the road. 

Massive rocks were lifted off the coastline, and placed in the middle of road. Trees were felled and electricity posts faced all sorts of direction. 

Some parts of the road were half eaten by the water. Others were completely destroyed. 

The worst was yet to come. At Lalomanu, the most visited beach in Samoa, all the tourist accommodation’s disappeared. 

They were cleaned out along with family homes there. Rental cars used by guests were thrown everywhere, some upside down in the middle of the road. 

“I think that was a dead baby,” my Australian friends at the back of the car said. So we stopped. An elderly man approached us for help. 

He asked if we could take the baby to the hospital. We agreed and he jumped in. 

It was a boy with white stuff coming out of his nose. Probably four years old. 

“We’ve just found him,” the man said. “He’s the son of another woman that was seriously injured and she’s at the hospital.”

Getting through the debris was tough, especially driving a Tuscon. 

But it felt like eternity especially with dead body on the passenger seat. But more was to come. 

A few meters down the road; we found another dead body which needed a lift to the hospital. We threw him at the back. 

As we drew closer to the hospital, I saw that my wife’s Lalomanu family home was completely flattened. 

There was nothing left of their green house. It was devastating. 

At the Lalomanu hospital, it was chaos. There were dead people lying everywhere covered in lavalava. 

My Australian doctor friends were welcomed by Dr Tapa Fidow and they immediately got down to work. 

Injuries for those who were alive consisted mainly of cuts and bruises. 

A vanload of nurses arrived from Apia a few minutes later. They too were dispatched to their duties immediately. 

Meanwhile, back on the road, emergency workers arrived. There were vehicles from the Samoa Water Authority (SWA), Electric Power Corporation (EPC), Fire Service and the Ministry of Environment. 

While they did what they could do to help, not everyone was feeling that way. 

At Lalomanu Beach, young boys were combing through the wreckage, scavenging for any valuables they could find. 

One looked like he’d won the lotto when he found half a bottle of Jim Beam.

Not far away was a woman weeping, looking very distressed. 

I was told she owns one of the tourist accommodations completely destroyed. 

“There could be more than 50 people killed,” a Lalomanu man said. “I think many tourists are dead.”

The claim could not be verified immediately. But Leituala Dr Ben Matalavea said while the death toll was rising the number of people missing was “uncountable.”

Another doctor, Dr Mika, said he has never seen anything like it. 

The arrival of the Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi and the Minister of Revenue, Tuu’u Anasi’i Leota, who I think was Acting Prime Minister, brought some comfort. 

Looking very sad, His Highness Tui Atua attempted to comfort family members of the dead. 

He walked around the hospital, shaking hands where he could and speaking to as many as possible.  

But they arrived just in time to witness a truck being loaded with dead bodies, destined for the hospital morgue, or private funeral parlours. “Please take care of their bodies,” one woman yelled out. “They are precious to us.” 

After fixing a flat tyre my Australian doctor friends introduced me to two more Australians. 

They are a couple recently married and were staying at Seabreeze Resort for their honeymoon. 

“We were separated from a group,” they told us. “We lost everything. We have absolutely nothing.” The woman was pregnant. 

“We went to the hospital to check on my baby but obviously since I’m still alive, I wasn’t a priority,” she said. “But I can understand... there were dead people everywhere.” 

They wanted to see the Australian Embassy for help. They did and were served by none other than the very helpful Australian High Commissioner, Matt Anderson. My doctor friends from Australia said the local doctors handled the situation quite well. 

“They had it all under control,” one said. “But I imagine it wouldn’t be like this if all of Samoa was hit.” Imagine that?

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