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Man Survives 27-Hour Swim After Tonga Volcano Eruption, Tsunami

Tonga volcano
The Tonga volcano as seen from a weather satellite in the South Pacific. Credit: Facebook/Manny Conde Samaniego

A man who is being hailed as a “real life Aquaman” swam for 27 hours straight after the tsunami that occurred after the Tonga volcano eruption swept him away from his village.

Lisala Folau, a 57-year-old Tongan man who was swept out to sea following the Saturday eruption of the volcano called Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, is one very lucky (and strong) man.

The eruption killed at least three people, and sent tsunami waves across the Tongan archipelago, flattening and damaging villages, resorts and many residences, knocking out communications for all of Tonga, an archipelago with a population of 105,000.

Folau, who lived on the small, isolated island of Atata with only 59 other residents, was immediately swept out to sea after the tsunami plowed into his island at about 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Tonga volcano
Tonga tsunami survivor Lisala Folau, as shown in a social media post before his ordeal. Credit: Vise Lavaki

In a radio interview with Tongan media agency Broadcom Broadcasting, Folau recounted what he was doing when the tsunami came. He stated that he had been painting his home when his brother alerted him to the great wave, which was just about to hit the tiny island. Before he knew it, the tsunami swept over the land, swallowing his home.

He was able to climbed into a tree to escape the water, but was swept away after a second wave hit, he told reporters, adding that he is disabled and cannot walk properly. “I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming,” he recalled.

Folau somehow managed to swim an incredible 7.5 km (4.7 miles) to the main island of Tongatapu, finally reaching a beach on the island fully 27 hours later at approximately 10 p.m. on the next day, Sunday.

Reuters, which relayed the story, was unable to contact Folau or verify the veracity of his report. If true, his is one of the most extraordinary survival stories of any tsunami. Most often, victims are swept so far away form land that they are unable to make their way back, as was seen in many cases in the Indonesian tsunami of 2004.

The incredible story of Folau’s heroic swim understandably went viral among Tongan people on Facebook and other social media, with one of them stating admiringly “He’s a legend.”

His home island of Atata, located 8 km (5 miles) northwest of Tonga’s capital of Nuku’alofa, has been almost entirely destroyed by the tsunami that took place after the incredible force of the erupting underwater volcano. As of Thursday, boats from the Tongan Navy are still  exploring what is left on the smaller islands and evacuating people they find to the main islands.

Dramatic photos taken by satellites show the horrific aftermath of the massive Tonga eruption and tsunami, with ash blanketing every living and inanimate object on all the Tongan islands.

Tonga Volcano eruption
The Tonga volcano eruption as seen from the sea. Credit: Facebook/EarthSky

Experts believe that the eruption may have been the largest such explosion on the planet in three decades, according to a report on CNN. The massive eruption occurred underwater, but spewed ash, pulverized rock and detritus far up into the atmosphere.

The explosion of the volcano sent ash, steam and gases an incredible 12.4 miles (20 km) into the sky, according to the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The  event was seven times more powerful than the previous eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which occurred on Dec. 20, 2021.

Adding to the great concern over the people of Tonga and how many were able to survive the blast and tsunami, damage to an undersea communications cable led to a complete communications blackout, for a time making it impossible to analyze the extent of the damage other than visually, from photos and footage taken by satellites.

The volcano and the tsunami that resulted from it destroyed every single home on Mango island, one of Tonga’s outer islands, according to the office of the Tongan prime minister. Additional islands also experienced widespread damage, and three people have been reported dead so far.

In addition, every living thing on all the Tongan islands has been coated with ash and soot, making the landscape look dead and barren, stopping any sunlight from reaching leaves for photosynthesis.

The undersea volcano exploded with a force that was more than 600 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, according to scientists.

Tongan volcano explosion equivalent to over 650 Hiroshima bombs

James Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told National Public Radio that the volcano’s force was estimated to be “around 10 megatons of TNT equivalent.”

That means the Tongan eruption was equal to more than 650 “Little Boy” atomic bombs, one of which was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 at the end of WWII. That explosion had an estimated force of 15,000 tons of TNT.

Although the island country’s main airport, Fua’amotu International, did not sustain damage, damaged, it was covered in ash, making landings of relief supplies impossible. A team of workers have been systematically removing as much of the ash every day as possible, but only on Thursday were flights able to land once again.

Although communications are still difficult, a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules loaded with disaster relief supplies landed at Fua’amotu International Airport, according to a defense spokesperson as reported by Reuters.

Communities across the island archipelago are also awaiting the arrival of a ship  that has equipment that will enable them to clear up more debris; large quantities of desperately-needed clean drinking water are also on the ship.

The vessel is also carrying desalinization equipment that will enable Tonga to make its own drinking water from sea water.

Most Tongans rely on cisterns which collect rainwater; after the volcanic eruption, they were all contaminated with ash and their water is therefore unusable.


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