PHOTO: The boat that sank near Matamaka.
It was like any other normal day in Matamaka. I woke up, went to school, had my lunch, went back to school, came home, made my dinner, and prepared to go back for night school. However, Wednesday, August 11, 2010 will always be the most disturbing day in my Peace Corps Tonga experience.
Around 5:40 PM, I was washing some dishes at my house when I noticed several men running to the wharf. My initial thought was, “damn they must be late to go fishing.” It wasn’t until one of my students ran to my house and screamed, “Feleti…ha’u ha’u ko vaka ngoto!” I wasn’t familiar with the word ngoto. All I understood was “come come, something boat.” I had quickly told Taina (the student) that I will go see it later. I thought it was some fancy yacht thath had anchored in front of the Matamaka. Big deal, I thought. It was about 5:45 PM when I decided to just get to night school a little bit early and bring my camera because Taina insisted so. He had refused to leave my house without it. So, we walked to the first beach by house. I was confused. There was no fancy yacht. “Feleti, fakavavevave!” (Feleti, hurry!) Taina shouted at me as he led me to the other beach of Matamaka.
By the time I walked to the top of the hill, I noticed two Matamaka boats out in the middle of sea. The sea was very rough that day and thought it was an odd time for the boats to be gallivanting around. It wasn’t until I ran into my principal’s wife when she told me that there has been an accident. A ship from Ovaka had sunk. Ovaka is the next island from Matamaka. She told me that the boat was full of people who went to a putu or funeral at Ovaka.
PHOTO: Matamaka boats helping the survivors from the sunken ship. MATAMAKA 507.
I quickly ran to the beach and captured some photos of people who were getting plucked out of the water. It was then that I noticed that one of them was close a friend of mine. By the time the first Matamaka boat returned to the beach with the first set of survivors was when I saw the top of the sunken ship bobbing around the water. Regardless, the Matamaka residents already prepared blankets and a little triage area for the victims. Ironically, the Tonga Red Cross was in Matamaka for disaster preparedness that week.
PHOTO: The scene from the top of the hill where I first saw the events unfold and the first rescue boat to make it back to shore with survivors.
As more and more survivors were brought to shore was when I realized how spread out people were in the sea. We later found out that more survivors were at a third beach outside of Matamaka. Boats were quickly sent there to help them. By this time other boats from neighboring villages have arrived to help with the rescue efforts. They too were scoping the waters between Matamaka, Sisia, and Ovaka islands.
One boat came back with an unconscious girl. Kato (the Red Cross lady) and a Matamaka woman quickly started CPR. Minutes had passed before a fast boat from the nearby village of Falevai came to take the girl and her family to the hospital. Kato had requested that I help her with CPR all the way to the hospital.
PHOTOS: The triage area setup by the Matamaka people. Babies and other young children were also onboard when the boat sank. They all were rescued by Matamaka boats.
The boat was fairly fast, but just not fast enough. The high school girl, whose grandmother and brother helplessly watched as we kept continued with the CPR, was announced dead upon arrival at the hospital. It was the first time in my entire life for someone to die right in front of me. I later found out her name. I cannot believe how quickly life can end. She was just going to a funeral that day. She was going back to school the next day, but her life was cut short. All her hopes and dreams just disappeared within minutes and I felt powerless to help her live. I tried my best.
After leaving the hospital, I realized that my phone fell in the water while trying to board the boat. In addition, my wallet fell somewhere (someone thankfully found it and returned to me) and I was left with a flashlight and sweater. Normally, I would be upset, but after the entire ordeal I realized they were all just THINGS. Material objects that are all replaceable. I was alive and well. That alone was something to be grateful.
PHOTO: CPR on the beach.
It was a crazy day. It was one of those things that you think would never happen to you. Was I traumatized? I would say I am more aware that how life can end at a blink of an eye. On the contrary, I was proud that the CPR lessons that the Red Cross and I prepared in February paid off. The people knew right away what to do and wasted no time. They learned something and it reassured me that my work in Tonga has not been a complete waste of time.
The sun was about to set when the incident happened. More people might have died if it occurred an hour later as most people were not familiar with the area. They would have drifted out to sea without knowing where Matamaka was located. The village does not have a lot of light that can be seen from far away. Furthermore, all the Matamaka boats were at the wharf (it is located on the other beach of Matamaka) because of the rough water. A night rescue would have severely limited the effectiveness of the search due to the number of flashlights available over such a large area. Even if all the other boats from the other villages came to help, by the time they would’ve arrive there would have been survivors floating in every direction.
In the end, it’s important to expect the unexpected. It’s better to take preventive actions in any situation than a potential deadly price. I always thought it was silly for Peace Corps to mandate a life vest anytime you ride a boat. Although, I can swim and most likely survive a ship sinking, I know that I can give my life vest to someone else who does not know how to swim. In Tonga, an island nation, you would assume everyone knows how to swim, but in reality they don’t. By the way, my friend was okay. He lost his things, but he is alive and healthy. The sun comes up and a bright new day waits. Don’t take it for granted. For real…LIVE YOUR LIFE.
PHOTO: Notice the sunken boat in the far right in this photo; it had continued to drift after finally hitting a reef.