The day the world went dark: Survivor remembers disaster in Tonga | News Volcanoes
“There it came on the radio – a tsunami warning issued for the whole of Tonga. We’re sitting in my car in the longest line…completely overwhelmed. It literally looks like an apocalyptic horror movie but worse, much worse. I can’t describe the feeling. Seeing my daughter curled up in the passenger seat crying asking if everything is okay, asking about the rest of our family.
For Tevita Fukofuka, who was in the capital Nuku’alofa on the fateful day of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption, it was a moment etched in her memory for life. A young father and local government worker, Tevita took to Facebook over the weekend to post an emotional diary entry he wrote last week, 24 hours after his country’s heartbreaking ordeal.
At around 6 p.m. local time (0400 GMT), the first audible explosion sounded from the now infamous volcano.
“I thought it was a flat tire from a big truck or something,” recalls Tevita. “I looked around in confusion, then a second knock; I thought it looked like cannons passing by. But the third explosion was much louder and seemed just above my head; I knew it was this fucking volcano and something was seriously wrong.
Dozens of cars had already started to form long queues as people rushed to move inland away from the coast. But Tevita couldn’t join them yet. Putting his car in reverse, he was probably one of the few vehicles to go against the current as he accelerated to pick up his young daughter, Lote si’i, who had just been dropped off at a relative’s.
“I was so confused because this volcano is all the way to Ha’apai; 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 as I reached my daughter, there was the loudest ‘bang’. It was as if the heavens had opened and the world had exploded in my ear. I have never heard such a loud noise in all my life.
“If death had a sound, this would be it.”
As the sound reverberated through his head, everything around him shook violently.
“The car, the house, the ground – everything was shaking. I looked up at the sky and saw hundreds of birds flying in all directions. I was scared but tried not to show it. My daughter jumped in the car shaking and crying. As I rushed to the gas station, I tried to reassure her that everything would be fine.
Sulfur Ash Rain
There was no way for Tevita and her fellow Tongans to know at that time that NASA would continue to estimate that the volcanic explosion would be equivalent to five to six million tons of TNT – and 500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear explosion.
Nor could they imagine that the eruption would send a tsunami into the Pacific Ocean or set off a sonic boom that circled the globe twice.
As Tevita and Lote finally joined the sea of cars winding through the city bumper to bumper, the only thought that crossed their minds was “survival”.
“Then came a deafening sound of rain of sulfur ash in the form of pebbles, ash and dust,” recalls Tevita.
“We could hear it hitting the roof of our car and the houses along the road. The sky turned completely black. The density of ash clouds emanating from the volcano turned day into night.
Between the storm of pebbles and ashes, the sound of volcanic explosions and a tsunami warning sounding on the radio, the whole scenario seemed surreal.
Tevita tried to remain calm; if he could just reach Tofoa or Pea, he would be far enough inland, he thought. Through a series of frantic calls from other family members, he learned that their vehicle was still trailing far behind him – caught in the wave of vehicles from an entire moving country.
Spotting two car crashes along the way, Tevita decided to pull into a parking lot next to a home goods store. The store had a veranda with a roof in which he and his daughter could take shelter if the ash shower worsened.
“My friend, Jonathan, called me just as I had parked my car and told me to drive to the Tonga Water Board, which was on a nearby hill. quickly started moving again. Our fuel tank was almost empty and I prayed that 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 wipes were moving at full speed, trying to clear enough of the falling ash to see. It was as if we were going blind.
NASA had estimated that the plume of ash and gas from the volcano had penetrated the stratosphere about 30.5 km (19 miles) high, with some parts reaching up to 55 km (34 miles).
Without an internet connection, Tevita tried to keep in touch with her family through texts and calls. The local radio station, 90FM, was miraculously still on the air. At the top of Water Board Hill, young men led hundreds of cars through the windy, dusty darkness. They wore masks and improvised t-shirt hats in an attempt to breathe.
“One boy in particular was carrying a plastic wash box over his head. The sight of it finally made my daughter smile and I felt a little relieved when we found a parking spot.
“The whole city is gray”
Meet Tonga’s ‘real Aquaman’ who says he swam for about 27 hours after being swept out to sea during the tsunami 👇 pic.twitter.com/mAHd6dFO22
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 22, 2022
One by one, Tevita’s relatives contacted him to tell him they were safe. However, no one had yet heard of his parents. Fear rising in his chest, he asked little Lote if it would be okay to get out of the car with him so they could pick up Grandma and Grandpa.
“She made a brave face and said ‘yes’. Then she made herself a mask from a dress she found in the car. I covered my head with a jacket as we walked held hands and stumbled in the dark. My parents weren’t at the shelter, but we saw about a hundred women and children inside. Luckily, my sister finally got in touch with my parents later in the night.
As the evening wore on, Tevita saw his friend Jonathan approach his car with face masks, apples for Lote and cigarettes for him – little luxuries that seemed like a godsend in a turbulent world.
“We tried to settle in to sleep with the hundreds of people around us in their cars. We heard people singing hymns in the shelter. Lote insisted on keeping the radio on to keep us company. I was worried about the car battery, but 90FM kept us up to date – and it made us feel safer, calmer.
Locked in their car, they still didn’t know if the eruptions were over.
In the distance, the ancient volcano continued to rumble loudly all night. After a few hours of restless sleep, Tevita awoke just after sunrise to find that about half of the vehicles had disappeared.
“I noticed the ash fall had stopped so I woke up my daughter and tried to scrape as much ash off the car windscreen so I could get home. The radio station said volcanic activity had diminished over 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 walked home in disbelief. The whole city was gray from the falling ash.
In the days leading up to the January 15 blast, Tonga’s Geological Survey had warned of impending eruptions and a potential tsunami, ordering residents to stay away from beaches. Volcanologists now believe it was this preparation that likely saved thousands of lives.
For now, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai seems to have fallen silent. Tongans have helped each other to repair the damage and clean the streets, with international aid from Australia, New Zealand and Japan beginning to land in the country.