Tongan man, 57, survives 27-hour swim after being swept away by tsunami

A 57-year-old disabled Tongan man has been hailed as a “real life Aquaman” for reportedly swimming roughly 27 hours straight after being swept out to sea during the devastating tsunami.

Lisala Folau told local radio station Broadcom Broadcasting that he was painting his home on the tiny island of Atata on Saturday night when his brother alerted him about the tsunami after the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, the Guardian reported.

He said his brother and a nephew came to his aid as waves crashed into his home.

“We moved to another part of the house when a bigger wave, this wave I would estimate was about not less than six meters, [arrived],” Folau said, according to a translation of the interview by radio station editor George Lavaka.

“Bear in mind that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly … and when I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than I,” he added. “We hid to the eastern side of the house, the waves were coming from the west so we escaped that wave.”

Folau said he and his niece managed to climb a tree to escape the rushing water while his brother ran off to call for help.

Lisala Folau was painting his home on Saturday when the wave came.

“When the wave break on land just below us, my niece Elisiva and I had nothing to hold onto and we were swept out to sea,” he told the station.

“We floated at sea, just calling out to each other. It was dark and we could not see each other. Very soon I could not hear my niece calling anymore but I could hear my son calling,” Folau continued.

He said he decided not to answer his son.

Folau was eventually rescued after the harrowing ordeal, charted above.
Folau was eventually rescued after the harrowing ordeal, charted above.

“The truth is no son can abandon his father. But for me, 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,” Folau said.

“I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming,” he told the radio station.

When he saw a police boat hours later, he used a rag to wave at it but the people aboard didn’t see him on their way to Atata. He waved again when the boat headed back but they missed him again.

Folau continued swimming until he reached the island of Polo’a several hours later.

“I called and yelled for help but there was no one there. My mind was now on my niece that we were washed away together and now I have survived,” he said.

“I was now strong-minded that I could make it to mui’i Sopu,” he said, referring to a hamlet on the main island of Tongatapu, which he reached after a nearly five-mile swim.

“I was thinking about my sister at Hofoa who is suffering with diabetes and my youngest daughter [who] has heart problems. All this was racing through my mind,” Folau said.

He was finally picked up by a passing motorist.

Folau’s son Talivakaola described his emotions about the harrowing ordeal in a Facebook post.

An aerial photo shows the island covered in ash after the volcanic eruption last week.
An aerial photo shows the island covered in ash after the volcanic eruption last week.

“While talking with family in Tonga my tears continued to fall when I think of my Dad swimming around in the ocean after the tsunami hit,” he wrote. “My heart is broken imagining you drinking in the seawater Dad, but you’re a strong-willed man.”

Folau’s riveting account of survival has gone viral.

“Real-life Aquaman,” one user wrote on Facebook, referring to the comic book and movie superhero.

“He’s a legend,” another person wrote.

Erika Radewagen, an official with the American Samoa Swimming Association, described his feat as “absolutely amazing, given that he was fleeing a catastrophic event, to be under that kind of pressure, mentally and with additional physical pressure of fleeing in the dark.

Buildings are shown damaged in Nuku'alofa, Tonga after the volcanic eruption and tsunami.
Buildings are shown damaged in Nuku’alofa, Tonga after the volcanic eruption and tsunami.

“Even very experienced swimmers have physical boundaries and set parameters, but it takes a different mindset to take do what he did,” she told the Guardian.

“It’s not like he fell off a boat. He was escaping an erupting volcano, swept away by tsunami. There are more physical obstacles, such as ash, debris, waves and other factors that would have made his swim a lot more challenging,” Radewagen added.

Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands were destroyed and at least three people were killed in the tsunami.

With Post wires

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