It's been one hell of a year.
Here, in brief, is the story of what happened when we went for a holiday in Samoa. I want to write a series of reflections on this experience, but here first of all is the basic story.
Merilyn and I went to Samoa for a holiday in the middle of September, and a week later our daughter Felicity joined us there. We had had a fabulous time together, in a beautiful place where we were able to relax, swimming and snorkelling, reading and walking, and exploring various aspects of 2 of the islands, which are dominated by volcanoes, lava fields, and the most beautiful white sandy beaches and turquoise water.
On the morning of Tuesday 29th September Samoan time we were awoken by an earthquake at 6.50am – quite strong shaking for over a minute. We got up and went outside, but there did not seem to be any damage where we were. Merilyn tuned in to Radio Australia and they said it was a 7.9 earthquake, 200 km out to sea, south east of where we were staying. (In fact we later learned it was 8.3). It sounded bad, so we were getting dressed and were going to move out of our little beach bungalow, and see what we should do, when the tsunami warning siren sounded.
We ran out the door, and we could see the tsunami wave already coming on to the land about 40 metres away. We were all swept by the wave in different directions, under the water and into objects. Frank and Felicity were trapped in a courtyard area and smashed into buildings, which were themselves being broken up by the wave. Merilyn was taken past these buildings and carried quite a few hundred metres inland and ended up on a corrugated iron roof. We now know that the wave was moving at about 50 – 60 km per hour, and was about 3 to 4 metres high so we did not stand a chance escaping it.
Fortunately we have all survived – Frank and Felicity first found each other, and ended up on a verandah together – Frank was injured with broken ribs and had trouble breathing. Merilyn was bruised and battered, but her major distress was the fact that she did not find the others for about 45 minutes.
Then we were with a group of people from the area, some injured, some OK. Merilyn and another doctor triaged the worst injured, and I went with those to the hospital. It took about 45 minutes in a minivan – one of the resort employees came with us – her partner was quite injured, and she said where we should be taken. The hospital did not know we were coming as there was no communication possible from the south of the island. So we helped the nursing staff to get some basic care underway till the medical, Xray and pathology people were called in.
We spent 36 hours in hospital there with some of the other people from our holiday resort – some from Germany, some from New Zealand, and one other from Australia, whose wife died in the wave. The hospital was very good to us but they were overwhelmed ,and the care was basic. The support from the Australian High Commission was fantastic, and there were many local people and Australians who live in Samoa providing help to us, and contacting home for us. We had nothing but the clothes we were wearing and Frank had even lost some of those – no documents, money, no shoes, no glasses.
The Australian Government evacuated the injured Australians by RAAF Medivac plane to Amberley in Queensland, and we ended up in Ipswich Hospital. There our formal treatment started; in Samoa Frank had been told his Xray did not show broken ribs, but he was very sore and had lacerations across his chest and arms. CT showed 5 broken ribs, some aspiration of water, and he also had evidence of kidney bruising. Once Frank could travel we came home to Melbourne, where Felicity and Merilyn had a day in hospital for a general anaesthetic, so their wounds could be properly cleaned of the coral and plant matter that had contaminated them.
Our two sons were home in Australia while all this happened. Fortunately there was one person who had managed to escape the wave earlier than us and he let us use his mobile phone to ring home, so we were able to tell the boys that although we were hurt we were safe, even before they had heard a news bulletin. The boys were on the radio and TV here, as they had information before the news services. They used the news to let people know that we were okay, and then they said they did not want anymore of the media. Despite us indicating that we did not want media involvement we were pictured in the paper and on TV.
The effect on Samoa is devastating. The south coast is ruined, many villages no longer exist and there has been much loss of life, especially of children who did not stand a chance in the water. The people have also lost much of their employment as tourism is the major industry, and the small friendly resorts along the coast, are gone. There is nothing left intact where we were at Coconuts resort. We feel very sad for the people – we were able to come home to our loved ones, a house, etc. One day we may have the strength to go back, and we are hoping to have some ongoing contact with some who we have met there.
In the tsunami we lost everything that we had with us except Merilyn's watch. We have come home with a deep sense of gratitude, just to be alive and for having each other. The loss of things is nothing compared with the gift of life. There is much to reflect upon here …