Miracle story of disabled Tongan man who survived in sea for 28 hours after tsunami

20 January 2022, 10:13 | Updated: 20 January 2022, 11:27

Lisala Folau, inset, and the devastation caused by Saturday's tsunami
Lisala Folau, inset, and the devastation caused by Saturday's tsunami. Picture: Alamy

By Patrick Grafton-Green

A disabled man who was swept out to sea by the Tongan tsunami drifted and swam between islands for more than 24 hours after the disaster struck.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Retired carpenter Lisala Folau, 57, from the island of Atata, spoke to local radio station Broadcom FM about his ordeal, saying a large wave swept him away after Saturday's devastating volcanic eruption.

He reached the shore of Sopu, on the main island of Tongatapu, about 28 hours later.

The distance between the islands is about 8km.

READ MORE: Tonga tsunami: 3 confirmed dead as leaked military photos show 'catasrophic' damage

READ MORE: Tonga: Fishermen protest in Peru after sea life 'massacred' by oil spill caused by eruption

A transcript of the interview has been translated and shared on social media by a senior editor at the radio station, George Lavaka.

Mr Folau had been painting at his home when he was alerted about the tsunami by family members, and initially tried to avoid the waves by climbing a tree.

"Bear in mind that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly," he told the radio station, adding "when I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than I."

After climbing down the tree during a lull in the waves a larger wave struck, and Mr Folau and his niece were swept out to sea.

"We floated at sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark and we could not see each other," he said.

He heard his son calling, but decided not to answer him because he feared he would risk his life to save him.

He said: "As a father I kept my silence for if I answered him he would jump in and try to rescue me. But I understand the tough situation and I thought if the worst comes and it is only me."

Mr Folau clung to a tree trunk, and at one point attempted to wave down a passing patrol boat. However the boat did not see him.

He eventually made it to Tongatapu via the islands of Toketoke and Polo’a, somehow summoning the energy to swim the final leg of his journey

Exhausted, he made it to a public road where he was picked up by a driver.

"So unexpected that I survived after being washed away, floating and surviving the dangers I just faced," he said.

So far three people have been confirmed dead after the tsunami, which has caused widespread devastation to the islands of Tonga.