Tsunami: Six minutes to save their lives

By Jared Savage

Andy Belcher sits among the devastation on a beach in southeast Samoa. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Andy Belcher sits among the devastation on a beach in southeast Samoa. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As day breaks, the homeless walk along a gravel road from makeshift camps and fale near taro plantations protected by the higher grounds.

As far as the eye can see, a slick silt covers all surfaces, a tell-tale sign of the destructive wake of the tsunami.

Cars are flipped over, rubble strewn across the flattened vegetation.

Thick sheets of iron are crumpled like cardboard, and concrete slabs are all that remain of most fale. Damaged timber from homes and businesses is reduced to driftwood lapping against the beach shore.

Locals pick through the debris to rescue what can be salvaged; police pick through the debris to remove bodies.

Villagers begin to rebuild what remains of their lives. Most have nothing but the shirts on their backs. Even with trucks and diggers arriving, the clean-up seems an impossible task.

The village of Lalomanu, right on the tip of the coast, bore the brunt of the angry seas on Wednesday morning.

What was once a thriving tourist spot, a postcard from paradise, is now little more than a rubbish dump. Some Lalomanu survivors have lost more than 12 members of their families.

Everyone we speak to has lost a loved one, but condolences are met with shrugged shoulders. There will be time to mourn, a time to remember and grieve, but there is too much work to do.

Help is on the way. As the locals pick through what is left of their lives, a convoy of Red Cross volunteers bring much needed food and supplies. Behind those, trucks bringing diggers to clear the ruins.

An Orion aircraft from the New Zealand Airforce flies low overhead, scanning for bodies swept out to sea. Flares are fired from the plane to mark locations for rescue boats to pick up the deceased from the sea.

Returning a loved one to the land of Samoa is a crucial part of the grieving process in this country. Every effort will be made.

Samoa had just six minutes to save lives.

Striking 200km to the southeast of the main island of Upolu, the 8.3 earthquake shook the tiny Pacific nation to its core, then delivered a knockout blow.

In just six minutes, thousands of tonnes of water surged across the sea and changed thousands of lives in an instant.

TOURIST Andy Belcher was staggered how quickly the water came, with so little warning.

Asleep with his wife Angie in a fale, he initially dismissed the quake as vibrations from a truck driving along the road.

The tremors became more violent, not just moving the room from side-to-side but forcing the bed to jump in the air, as if an unseen giant was picking up the room and shaking it.

For at least a minute, the Bay of Plenty couple, wearing nothing but a sheet, braced themselves in the door-frame, expecting the fale to fall down around them. Then nothing.

The seismic activity slowly subsided and neighbours at the Seabreeze Resort called out to check on one another.

Most went back to bed. But something bugged Andy. "I knew something was coming. Something in my head said: if the quake is that big, it means it was close. There will be a tsunami. There's no question."

Thinking there was time before the tsunami struck, Andy threw on clothes and started walking around. It was the first he had seen of Samoa in daylight, after arriving on a late night flight into Apia.

Walking up the short, steep road into the bay, Andy stopped to talk to a couple of teachers who were packing a rental car with all their belongings. The car never made it.

Andy turned to walk back to his wife, who was getting changed in the fale. Then he saw the sea.

"I looked at the water and I swore the water was going out, but I thought I was seeing things.

"So I looked out to the reef, a few hundred metres away. I could see white water tumbling down the back of the reef, white water disappearing out to sea."

The tide was being sucked out by the incoming tsunami, before being spewed on to the land.

"That was the trigger. This is it. I suddenly knew we all had to get out of there. I started running back down the hill screaming, 'Get out, everybody out, get out'."

His desperate cries almost certainly saved those who were still in bed.

Angie bolted out of the fale and collided with Andy who was running back towards her.

"We just smashed right into each other. I was going to head back into the fale to grab my camera gear, but I thought, don't be a bloody fool."

The couple struggle to remember what happened as they fled.

"Nothing was working. I was going as fast as I could, but nothing was working. My legs felt like lead and my chest, I just couldn't breathe," says Angie.

As they were halfway up the hill with the 30 other screaming tourists, a big, brown muddy surge flooded the bay.

"I saw the wave come over the bank, smash over it. It must have been four or five metres high. It wasn't far behind us. Not far. Not far at all," says Andy.

As the couple scrambled to safety, the wall of water consumed the beachside fales, the Seabreeze restaurant and the resort owners' home. Everything was swept out to sea, including the parked car on the side of the hill, alarm blaring as it bobbed in the angry ocean.

Three times the tsunami rolled in and out, each time larger than the last, the roar of the ocean deafening.

The basin shape of the bay forced the water to surge in like a flushing toilet, swirling right to left in a big loop.

"The sea just boiled, whirling, whirling, whirling," says Angie.

Then there was calm.

The tourists gathered on the hillside and were shepherded into a surviving fale by the locals. With cellphone reception down, everyone was desperate to get in touch with loved ones back home.

"No one could get a signal. Then all of a sudden, lots of text messages came through. Then there was this panic on the phones. It was bizarre," says Angie.

Among the messages, was a tsunami text warning from Civil Defence, 30 minutes after the fact.

"Six minutes. That's all we had. It was staggering how quick it was. Just six minutes. But we were meant to survive," says Andy.

As the group were picked up to be taken by truck to the New Zealand High Commission in Apia, a woman was told that her friend Tui Annandale, the owner of the nearby Sinalei resort, had been killed.

"There was this silence, then this terrible wailing. The sound of grief. As the truck left, this woman standing in the middle of the road and a Samoan lady just came and wrapped her arms around her," says Angie.

"Just this framed picture of absolute grief that I'll never forget."

Foreign Minister Murray McCully arrived in Apia yesterday, visiting Lalomanu, then returning to meet the Samoan Prime Minister Sailele Malielegaoi Tuilaepa.

New Zealand has promised an initial $1 million in aid, and every cent will be needed to nurse Samoa and Tonga back to full health.

New Zealand police officers arrived in Apia the day after the tragedy, providing manpower and expertise in victim identification. It is gruelling and painstaking work.

With a death toll second only to the influenza epidemic of 1918, the effects of the tsunami will be felt for many years in Samoa. In some families entire generations are gone.

Less than 12 hours after the tsunami struck, the Weekend Herald was allowed to enter the grounds of Motootua Hospital where the dead and injured were being taken. Ambulances arrived with body after body, to be carried into the chapel for post-mortem examinations. They were wrapped in blankets or tarpaulins, and you could tell that many were children.

There was no more room in the morgue, so a makeshift chiller was set up to house the growing body count.

It was truly harrowing.

Dr Limbo Fiu took a break to explain the ever-changing tragedy.

At that stage, 79 people were confirmed dead, mainly children and elderly. The youngest was just two months old, the oldest a 102-year-old woman.

Two pregnant mothers were given emergency caesarean births. There were not enough staff to cope; retired nurses and teachers came in to help.

Despite the chaos, Dr Fiu was composed under pressure, and honest.

"I've never seen this kind of devastation. It's unprecedented in the history of our country."

The Belchers, who were in Samoa to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, admit they were the lucky ones. They lived to tell the tale.

Yesterday, 65-year-old Andy visited the stricken southeast coast with the Weekend Herald and was visibly moved.

He was in tears as he surveyed the desolation. He and Angie had planned to fly back to New Zealand on the next available flight, but have now decided to stay.

Seeing so many destroyed lives up close has rammed home the magnitude of the tsunami and its devastating effect on Samoa. "We're so lucky compared to everyone else in this disaster", he says. "We're just thankful to be alive. This is not something easily forgotten."

- NZ Herald

How you can help

Pacific Cooperation Foundation
Deposits can be made at at any Westpac branch. All the money raised will go to the Samoan Government

Red Cross
- Make a secure online donation at redcross.org.nz
- Send cheques to the Samoan Red Cross Fund, PO Box 12140, Thorndon, Wellington 6144
- Call 0900 31 100 to make an automatic $20 donation
- Make a donation at any NZ Red Cross office

ANZ bank Make a donation at any ANZ bank branch, or donate directly to the ANZ appeal account: 01 1839 0143546 00

Oxfam - Make a secure online donation at Oxfam.org.nz - Phone 0800 400 666 or make an automatic $20 donation by calling 0900 600 20

Your views

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 28 Nov 2014 17:47:46 Processing Time: 575ms