Tongan man with disabilities swept away by tsunami swam and floated for 27 hours to safety

This photo provided by Broadcom Broadcasting shows a damaged area in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, following Saturday's volcanic eruption near the Pacific archipelago. The first flight carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga was finally able to leave Thursday after the Pacific nation's main airport runway was cleared of ash left by the eruption. (Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting via AP)
A damaged area in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, following Saturday's tsunami near the Pacific archipelago. Credit: AP

A Tongan man with disabilities who was swept out to sea by the tsunami survived after drifting and swimming between islands for around 27 hours.

Lisala Folau, who said his disability means he has difficulty using his legs, floated and swam more than 10km from his home on the island of Atata to two uninhabited islands and eventually reached the main island of Tongatapu.

Mr Folau, 57, shared his miraculous story to Tongan Broadcom Broadcasting radio station, five days after the tsunami hit the country.

A transcript of his interview was translated and shared by a senior editor at the radio station, George Lavaka, on Facebook.

Mr Folau said he had been painting his home on Saturday afternoon when his older brother alerted him to the tsunami.

People clear ash off a damaged area in Nuku’alofa, Tonga Credit: Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting via AP

With the help of his brother and nephew, he moved to various parts of the house as the waves thrashed the building. At one point, he and his nephew were on a tree to escape the waves.

But when he got down to try to move to a neighbour's house on higher ground, a huge wave came.

He said: "When the wave break on land just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold onto and we were swept out to sea. This was 7pm.

“We floated at sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark and we could not see each other. Very soon I could not hear my niece calling anymore but I could hear my son calling.”

But Mr Folau said he decided not to answer his son, fearing that he would risk his life to save him.

"The truth is no son can abandon his father," he explained.

"But for me, as a father, I kept my silence for if I answered him he would jumped in and try to rescue me. But I understand the tough situation and I thought if the worst comes and it is only me.

"My thinking was if I answered him, he would come and we would both suffer so I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming."

A huge cloud of ash rose above the Pacific island nation

At that point, he was thinking about finding a tree to cling onto or that he would eventually drift to shore.

He said: "The pathway in the ocean and it stayed with my mind if I can cling to a tree or anything and if anything happen and I lose my life, searchers may find me and my familycan view my dead body.

"I was thinking after floating and drifting I landed on hard ground then I would seek help."

He eventually floated to the island of Toketoke, east from his home island, but it was difficult to get help from there.

He said: "I kept trying. By Sunday morning about 7am, I saw the police patrol boat heading toAtata island. I grabbed a rag and waved but the boat did not see me. It then was returning to Tonga and I waved again but perhaps they did not see me."

With not much luck on Toketoke island, he was resolved to swim to the island of Polo'a.

The devastation wrought by a huge tsunami. Credit: Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga

He said: I started there about 10 in the morning and I finally got there at 6pm. I called and yelled for help but there was no one there.

"My mind was now on my niece that we were washed away together and now I have survived."

He described how at that point he started to worry about his family and decided to swim to the main island.

"I was now strong-minded that I could make it to mui'i Sopu (western edge of Nuku'alofa) for I know my family were very worried. I am thinking about my sister at Hofoa who is suffering with diabetes and my youngest daughter has heart problems.

"All these were racing in my minds and what point was there that now I have survived and what about them.

"This drove me to get to Sopu. I struggled and got to the beach in front of the home of Paula Fukofuka in Sopu. It was about 9pm.

"I crawled from there to the end of tarsealed public road by the Fisheries Complex and there I found a piece of timber that supported me as a walking stick."

He was picked up by a passing vehicle and was taken to the driver's home.

An overview of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano in Tonga. Credit: AP

Three people have been confirmed dead in the tsunami, and many more were injured and have lost homes.

About 50 homes were destroyed on the main island of Tongatapu.

U.N. humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80% of Tonga’s population — have been impacted by the volcano’s eruption, U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said.

Communications with Tonga remain limited after the tsunami appeared to have broken the single fibre-optic cable that connects Tonga with the rest of the world.

The Queen has said her “thoughts and prayers” are with those in Tonga.

The 95-year-old monarch said: “I am shocked and saddened by the impact of the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tonga, as you work together to recover from the damage caused.

“It must be incredibly difficult for those who are unable to contact friends and family while communications are disrupted, and I hope that they will soon be restored.”

The Royal Navy will join the international relief effort. Offshore patrol vessel HMS Spey will sail from Tahiti to Tonga carrying water and medical equipment.