The day the world darkens: Survivor remembers the disaster in Tonga Volcano News

“A tsunami alert for the whole of Tonga has appeared on the radio. We sit in my car in the longest queue … completely overloaded. It feels literally like an apocalyptic horror movie, but worse, much worse. I can’t describe the feeling. Seeing my daughter huddled in the passenger seat, crying, wondering if we would make it, asking about the rest of our family.

For Tevita Fukofuka, who was in the capital Nuku’alofa on the fateful day of the eruption of the Tonga-Hongga Haapai volcano, it was a moment etched in his memory for a lifetime. A young father and local government official, Tevita logged into Facebook this weekend to post an emotional entry in the diary he wrote last week, 24 hours after the ordeal in his country.

At approximately 18:00 local time (04:00 GMT) the first sound explosion erupted from the scandalous volcano.

“I thought it was a flat tire on a big truck or something,” Tevita recalls. “I looked confused at the road, then a second crash; I thought it sounded like cannons firing nearby. But the third explosion was much louder and sounded as if it were just above my head; I knew it was the damn volcano and something was wrong.

Dozens of cars had already begun to form long queues as people rushed inward, away from shore. But Tevita still could not join them. Turning his car in reverse, he was probably one of the few vehicles to drive against the traffic as he hurried to pick up his young daughter, Lotte Xi, who had just been left at a relative’s home.

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

“Just as I reached my daughter, I heard the loudest crash. I had the feeling that the heavens had opened and the world exploded in my ear. I’ve never heard a louder noise in my life. “

“If death had a sound, it would be.”

When the sound echoed in his head, everything around him shook violently.

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

Sulfur ash rain

At the time, Tevita and his Tongan compatriots had no way of knowing that NASA would later estimate the volcanic eruption to be equivalent to five to six million tons of TNT – and 500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear explosion.

They also could not imagine that the eruption would send a tsunami race across the Pacific Ocean or trigger a sound boom that would travel the world twice.

When Tevita and Lotte finally joined the sea of ​​cars washing through armor to armor of the city, the only thought that crossed their minds was “survival.”

“Then came the deafening sound of rain of sulfur ash in the form of pebbles, ashes and dust,” Tevita recalls.

“We could hear him throwing the roof of our car and the houses on the road. The sky became completely dark. The density of the ash clouds emitted by the volcano turned day into night. ”

Between the storm of pebbles and ashes, the sound of volcanic explosions and the tsunami warning ringing on the radio, the whole scenario seemed surreal.

Tevita tried to stay calm; if he could just get to Tofoa or Peas, it would be far enough inland, he thought. Through a series of frantic calls from other family members, he learned that their vehicle was still dragging very far behind him – caught in the rush of a moving country.

Noticing two car accidents on the road, Tevita decided to stop at a parking space next to a grocery store. The store had a roof porch where he and his daughter could take shelter if the ash torrent worsened.

“My friend Jonathan called me just as I was parking my car and told me to drive to the water in Tonga, which was on a hill nearby. I quickly started moving again. Our tank was almost empty and I prayed we would succeed. The distance from the base to the top of the hill is only about 120 meters [394ft]but it took us an hour in the long queue. The wipes from everyone’s car were moving at full speed, trying to clear enough of the falling ash to see. It felt like we were going blind. ”

NASA has estimated that the jet of ash and gas from the volcano has ejected into the stratosphere at an altitude of about 30.5 km (19 miles), with some parts reaching 55 km (34 miles) above.

Without an Internet connection, Tevita tried to keep in touch with her family through text messages and calls. Miraculously, the local radio station 90FM was still on the air. At the top of Water Board Hill, young men steered hundreds of cars into the windy dusty darkness. They wore makeshift T-shirts, masks and hats in an attempt to breathe.

“In particular, a boy was carrying a plastic box for washing his head. His sight finally made my daughter smile, and I was somewhat relieved when we found a parking space.

“The whole city looks gray”

One by one, Tevita’s relatives contacted him to tell him they were safe. However, no one has yet heard from his parents. Fear rose in his chest, and he asked little Lotte if it would be a good idea to get out of the car with him so they could go looking for grandparents.

She made a brave face and said yes. Then she made a mask out of a dress she found in the car. I covered my head with my jacket as we held hands and stumbled into the dark. My parents were not in the shelter, but we saw about a hundred women and children inside. Fortunately, my sister finally contacted my parents later that evening.

As evening fell, Tevita saw her friend Jonathan approach his car with masks, apples for Lote, and cigarettes for him, small luxuries that felt like a gift from God in a world turned upside down.

“We tried to sleep with the hundreds of people around us in their cars. We heard people singing anthems in the shelter. Lot insisted that the radio be turned on to keep us company. I was worried about the car’s battery, but 90FM kept us up to date – and that made us feel safer, more relaxed. “

Locked in their car, they still weren’t sure if the eruptions were over.

In the distance, the ancient volcano continued to erupt at night. After several hours of restless sleep, Tevita woke up just after sunrise and found that about half of the vehicles had disappeared.

“I noticed that the falling ashes had stopped, so I woke up my daughter and tried to scrape as much ash from the windshield of the car so I could go home. The radio station said volcanic activity had decreased over the past three hours, but the tsunami warning was still in effect. There was also a shortage of drinking water in many areas. “

“It simply came to our notice then. The whole city was gray from the ashes. “

In the days before the explosion on January 15, Tonga’s geological services warned of impending eruptions and a potential tsunami, instructing locals to stay away from beaches. Volcanologists now believe that it was this readiness that probably saved thousands of lives.

For now, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haapai seemed to shut up. The Tongans are helping each other to overcome the damage and clean the streets, as international aid from Australia, New Zealand and Japan begins to land in the country.

Volcanic eruption in TongoNASA estimates that the volcanic eruption in Tonga was equivalent to five to six million tons of TNT – and 500 times more powerful than the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima [NASA/NOAA via AFP]

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