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Outer Islands

62 survivors from Mango Island evacuated safely to Tongatapu

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Mango Island evacuees receive clothing donations at the Free Wesleyan Church hall at Longolongo, where they are staying, following Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcanic eruption on Jan. 15, 2022. Photo: Eleanor Gee, Jan. 24 2022.

By Linny Folau and Eleanor Gee

Sixty two survivors, including about 18 children and babies, evacuated from Mango Island, Ha'apai Group, were brought to Tongatapu on Saturday Jan. 22 by a Tongan navy patrol boat.

The evacuees were picked up from Nomuka island on the VOEA Ngahau Koula, after being rescued from Mango last week with only the clothes they were standing in.

One man died in the tsunami, on the closest populated island to the submarine volcano in Tonga..

All homes on Mango were destroyed in the multiple tsunamis generated by the the powerful eruption of the Hunga Tonga - Hunga Ha‘apai volcano, which blackened the island in a thick layer of ash several centimetres deep on Jan.15. The entire population has been evacuated.

Fourteen families are staying at the Free Wesleyan Church Hall in Longolongo, where they were in high spirits Monday, as the church brought in bales of donated clothes and toys for them.

Two Tonga Red Cross trauma counsellors were meeting the families and talking to them after their extraordinary ordeal.

The small community of fisherman and farmers lived on the coastline. Several of them said yesterday that they may never return to live there. 

Mango prayers
When dawn came the Mango Island community prayed on the hill top. Jan. 16, 2022. Photo: Rev. Kisina Toetu'u.

Fled to open hill top

The community ran and scrambled to the top of a hill where they spent a fearful night, sitting in heavy ash fall, with a large pandanus mat, which the women held over their heads - the men out in the open, children in a small tent, and under woven coconut leaves. Rocks and pumice stones were falling with the heavy ash.

When dawn came they came together on the hill top, looking out to a grey horizon in a strange new blackened world, and prayed.

FWC Mango community leader, Rev. Kisina Toetu’u, (Free Wesleyan Church) said, “This natural disaster scale of devastation is the first I’ve seen but although we went through hardships as we fled for our lives, we are thankful that we are alive, all 62 of us.”

Rev. Kisina Toetu'u, Mango FWC community leader, at Longolongo on Jan.24, 2022. Photo: Eleanor Gee.

Two babies, only a few months old, were among them. Their church steward was missing. They called out for him during the night.

Kalisi Levani (81) was the oldest person on the island, “Luckily it did not rain much that night. We are thankful we are alive.” she told Matangi Tonga today in Nuku'alofa.

Mango Island
On a hilltop on Mango Island, Kalisi Levani (81) and other women shelter under a pandanus mat during ashfall and rock fall from the Hunga volcano on Jan.15. Photo: Rev. Kisina Toetu’u.

Kalisi said the sound and strength of this volcanic eruption at Hunga volcano was a new experience for her. A second fiery eruption was so strong the whole island was shaking and the sky turned black as ash was rising.

Rev. Kisina Toetu’u of the Free Wesleyan Church said that on Sunday morning, after after the eruption, a search party went down the hill to look for the missing steward, Telai Tutu‘ila (65). They found his body.

They also found the church’s fishing boat washed up on shore with the emergency beacon, which he turned on.

Mango Island town office, Sione Vailea, at FWC Longolongo church hall on Jan. 24, 2022. Photo: Eleanor Gee.

The Town Officer, Sione Vailea, was with the search party. He was thankful for the support of the church and the government during this evacuation. The community, traumatised by their experience, are recovering.

Rev Toetu’u said the disaster unfolded very quickly.

At 5:00pm on the Saturday he was sitting on the church verandah, engaged in a video call on his phone.

“Then I saw the waves coming inland.” He moved quickly to get his family away from the coast.

“We all heard the explosion from the volcano. My family was scared but I wasn't because I was strong for the rest of my family and community, because if I seem discouraged, then they too will feel discouraged,” he said.

Rev Toetu’u first carried his 21-year-old sickly daughter, who is too weak to run, on his back, up the hill.

“As I got her safely up, I came back for my wife and other members of my family, as well as fellow churchgoers and we all made it up the hill.”

“By 5:30pm it was already dark. ...As I sat up there I could hear the waves crushing the land.”

They put up a small tent to cover around 18 children, younger than 12 years.

Some women and girls sheltered under one pandanus mat.

Mango Is men
On a hilltop in Mango Island, men had little protection against the volcanic ash fall and rock fall on the night of Jan. 15, 2022. Photo: Rev. Kisina Toetu'u

“But the men had nowhere to hide under during the night, all they had was the clothes on their backs and something to cover their faces.”

“We stayed there overnight to be safe and it was only the next morning that some men as a search party went down to look for our missing person and saw the devastation, and that nothing was left,” he said.

The community named the hill that saved them “Mo’unga Saione” (Mount Zion) where they had prayed during the disaster that night.

“We named it as such because we fled to the mountain - God is our refuge and protector.”

“We send our love to the small islands in Ha’apai and we pray that God will get us through these difficult times.”

Rev. Toetu’u said they are happy to be taken care of in Tongatapu.

“I was glad to see as we approached Nuku’alofa harbour, that the Prime Minister and some Ministers were there to welcome us, he said.

Will they will return to Mango Island?

Rev. Toetu’u said “not in the near future”.

“Everything is gone there, our homes, so we are here for now and then we will see what steps to take.”

Explosive fire

Kalisi Levani (81) speaks calmly and smiles, in spite of the difficulty she went through with her family, including the loss of her home and livlihood.

Kalisi
Kalisi Levani (81) was the oldest person on the island, Safe at FWC Longolongo. Jan. 24, 2022. Photo: Eleanor Gee.

Kalisi said she was at home with family and her grandchildren. She was weaving.

“The first eruption, I knew it was the volcano,” she said.

Then the second eruption and the whole island was shaking.

“We all jumped up and stood at the door. I saw in the sky the black smoke rising and within the black smoke there was a glow.”

Within minutes the sky turned dark.

“I heard more explosions like shooting sounds.”

The town officer, Sione Vailea, shouted out to them to try and get inland because the sea was coming, a tsunami.

Sione is married to her daughter.

“We all ran and we didn’t take anything.”

Kalisi held her daughter’s hand and ran through the bushes and it was raining and muddy and they reached the side of the hill.

“I told my daughter to leave me here because I’m really tired and I can’t climb up. All of you go and I will stay here! She said no, we would all go and no one will stay here in case the sea gets here.

“We were arguing when her husband arrived and gripped my hand and forcibly pulled me to climb up the mountain with them,” she said.

“The three of us fell on the mountain and the path to the top was bushy. But he got my hand and was going to carry me on his back and we went a few steps but I told him to put me down, because if I don’t die from the tsunami, I’ll die from being exhausted.”

Kalisi said Sione put her down and they walked a bit then rested on the hill.

“Then we finally reached the very top and found others there already using coconut fronds to make a fale,” Kalisi said.

Another family arrived with a plastic tarpaulin and put the children in there. It was starting to rain and getting really dark and more families were running to the top. 

Mango Island
On a hilltop in Mango Island, the community faces a grey new dawn, Jan. 16, 2022. Photo: Rev. Kisina Toetu'u.

“We stayed there in the dark and the rain fell, it was sad with the ash, and the rocks all falling down. We pulled up a piece of mat to put over us. We heard it all coming down and the ash landed on our faces and we wiped it off our faces, it was muddy. The saddest part was seeing the men who had nothing to hide under. The rest of us were hiding under trees.”

Kalisi said the men were sitting in the mud in the open, some were lying down. 

Some were also trying to the find the man that was missing. They were calling for him and using torches to try and find him but they did not go into the sea.