The day the world went dark: Survivor recalls disaster in Tonga

Resident of the main island of Tongatapu says deafening sound, rain of sulphur ash followed Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai’s eruption.

Destroyed beach resorts in the Hihifo district of Tonga's main island Tongatapu following the January 15 eruption
Destroyed beach resorts in the Hihifo district of Tonga's main island Tongatapu following the January 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai [File: Mary Lyn FONUA/Matangi Tonga/AFP]

“It came on the radio – a tsunami warning for all of Tonga…I can’t describe the feeling. Seeing my daughter huddled in the passenger’s seat, crying, asking if we’ll be alright, asking about the rest of our family.

“It literally feels like an apocalyptic horror movie but worse, much worse.”

Tevita Fukofuka was in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa on January 15, the fateful day the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted and seared itself into his memory. The young father and local government worker took to Facebook to post an emotional diary entry he penned last week, 24 hours after his country’s harrowing ordeal.

The first explosion rang out from the now infamous volcano at approximately 6pm local time (04:00 GMT).

“I thought it was a big lorry’s blown tyre or something,” Tevita recalled. “I looked around the road confused, then a second bang; I thought it sounded like cannons going off close by. But the third explosion was much louder and sounded like it was just above my head; I knew it was that damn volcano and something was very wrong.”

Tongatapu resident Tevita Fukofuka’s daughter Lote si’i seeks shelter in their vehicle as sulphur ash rained on the country following the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano [Courtesy of Tevita Fukofuka for Al Jazeera]

Cars had already begun forming long queues as people rushed to move inland, away from the coast. But Tevita could not join them just yet. Putting his car in reverse, he was probably one of the few vehicles moving against traffic as he sped to pick up his young daughter, Lote si’i, who had just been dropped off at a relative’s place.

“I was so confused though because that volcano is all the way in Ha’apai; far away,” Tevita later recalled to Al Jazeera. The volcano is about 66km (41 miles) across the sea from the main island of Tongatapu.

“Just as I reached my daughter, there came the loudest bang. It felt like the heavens had cracked open and the world exploded inside my ear. I’ve never heard a louder noise in all my life.”

“If death had a sound, that would be it.”

As the sound reverberated in his head, everything around him shook violently.

“The car, house, earth – everything was shaking. I looked up at the sky and saw hundreds of birds flying in every direction. I felt afraid but tried not to show it. My daughter jumped into the car, trembling and crying. As I rushed to the gas station, I tried to reassure her that everything would be fine.”

Sulphur ash rain

There was no way for Tevita and his fellow Tongans to know at that moment that NASA would later go on to estimate the volcanic explosion to be equivalent to five to six million tonnes of TNT – and 500 times as powerful as the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima.

Nor could they imagine that the eruption would send a tsunami racing across the Pacific Ocean, or unleash a sonic boom that would zip around the world twice.

As Tevita and Lote finally joined the sea of cars snaking through the city, bumper to bumper, the only thought rushing through their heads was survival.

“Then came a deafening sound of sulphur ash rain… pebbles, ash and dust,” recalled Tevita.

“We could hear it pelting the roof of our car and the houses along the road. The sky turned completely dark. The density of the ash clouds emanating from the volcano turned day into night.”

Between the storm of pebbles and ash, the sound of volcanic explosions and a tsunami warning ringing over the radio, the entire scenario felt 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 very far behind him – caught in the vehicular surge of an entire country on the move.

Spotting two car accidents along the way, Tevita decided to pull into a parking area next to a home goods store. The store had a verandah with a roof that he and his daughter could shelter in if the downpour of ash got any worse.

“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 hill close by. I quickly began moving again. Our fuel tank was almost at empty and I prayed that we would make it. The distance from the base to the top of the hill is only about 120 metres [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 felt like we were going blind.”

NASA had estimated that the volcano’s plume of ash and gas shot into the stratosphere some 30.5km (19 miles) high, with some parts reaching as far as 55km (34 miles) up.

With no internet connectivity, Tevita tried to keep in contact with family through text messages and calls. The local radio station, 90FM, was miraculously still on the air. At the top of Water Board hill, young men were directing hundreds of cars in the windy, dusty darkness. They wore improvised t-shirt masks and hats in an attempt to breathe.

“One boy in particular wore a plastic wash tin on his head. The sight of him finally made my daughter smile, and I felt somewhat relieved as we found a parking spot.”

‘The whole city looks grey’

One by one, Tevita’s relatives contacted him to tell him they were safe. However, nobody had heard from his parents yet. Fear rising in his chest, he asked little Lote if she would be OK to get out of the car with him so they could go search for grandma and grandpa.

“She put on 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 held hands and stumbled into the dark. My parents were not at the shelter, but we saw about a hundred women and kids inside. Thankfully, my sister finally made contact with my parents later that night.”

As the evening wore on, Tevita saw his friend Jonathan approaching his car with masks, apples for Lote and cigarettes for him – small luxuries that felt like a godsend in a world turned upside down.

“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 worried about the car battery, but 90FM was keeping us updated – and it made us feel safer, calmer.”

Locked in their car, they were still uncertain if the eruptions were over.

In the distance, the ancient volcano continued to rumble loudly through the night. After a few hours of troubled sleep, Tevita woke just after sunrise to find about half of the vehicles gone.

“I noticed that the falling ash had stopped, so I woke my daughter up and tried to scrape as much ash off the car’s windshield to be able to drive home. The radio station was saying that the volcanic activity had decreased in the previous three hours, but the tsunami warning was still in place. There was also a shortage of drinking water in a lot of areas.”

“We slowly made our way home in disbelief. The whole city was grey from the ash fall.”

In the days leading up to the January 15 blast, the Tonga Geological Services had been warning of impending eruptions and a potential tsunami, instructing locals to stay away from the beaches. Volcanologists now believe that it was this preparedness that probably resulted in thousands of lives being saved.

For now, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai seems to have fallen silent. Tongans have been helping each other pick through the damage and clean up the streets, with international aid from Australia, New Zealand and Japan beginning to land in the country.

Volcano Eruption in Tongo
NASA estimates that the volcanic explosion in Tonga was equivalent to five to six million tonnes of TNT – and 500 times as powerful as the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima [NASA/NOAA via AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera