By Talia Mimilo
Hymns echoed out across the south coast of Upolu early this morning as people gathered to reflect and remember those killed a decade ago in the South Pacific Tsunami, Samoa's most devastating natural disaster.
The tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake, killed at least 143 people in Samoa, 33 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.
At 6am this morning, survivors and families of the victims marched in the dark along Main South Coast Road in Lalomanu, before arriving at the Taufua Beach Fales for a memorial service. The fales were rebuilt after the original Taufua Beach Fales were completely destroyed in the tsunami and 14 people in the wider Taufua family, who owned the huts, were killed.
Today, survivors spoke about their experiences, sharing heroic stories and paid tribute to the family members they lost. Some of the New Zealand survivors who came back to commemorate 10 years since the disaster, thanked the Samoan people for their hospitality and for taking such good care of them in the days after.
Three New Zealanders were killed in the Pacific tsunami and another presumed dead. They were Petria Martin, Rebecca Martin and Mary Anne White. The body of two-year-old Alfie Cunliff was never found.
Auckland man Joe Walden, who was staying in the Taufua Beach Fales with his family the day the tsunami hit, came back to Samoa for the memorial service today. He told 1 NEWS the story of briefly losing his 13-year-old son Josh in the mad rush up the hill. He recounted the five chaotic hours of searching through rubble, debris and bodies before he found him safe up a different part of the hill.
Local woman Fa’asega Taufua Tapelu told 1 NEWS the wave dragged her out to sea and was rescued seven hours later. The tsunami took a big hit on the mental health of many people in Samoa. The entire village of Saleapaga moved inland to escape the sea and had to adapt to a whole new way of life.
Still traumatised to this day, Ms Taufua Tapelu has never been back into the sea, and never will. Sitting by the water's edge, she said, "This is the closest I can go ... I am too scared." She talked fondly about her late father who was killed that day. She told 1 NEWS the wave swept him out of the fale and his body was the last to be found, three days later and far out at sea.
Ms Taufua Tapelu talked about her gratitude towards New Zealand and Australia in the months after the Tsunami. She said post-tsunami, three Samoan boys went to Raglan to be trained up in surf life saving. "It was great when they returned back to Samoa and could teach others," she said. Ms Taufua Tapelu highlighted the importance of Samoans, especially young people who live in coastal areas, being well-educated when it comes to tsunami alerts and rescue.
After the service, those who lost friends and family members placed flowers in the water and watched as the waves took them out to sea. It was a somber moment of reflection.
On the first Monday of every month, tsunami sirens sound for testing and training for those living on the South Coast of Samoa's Island Upolu, a system that was never in place prior to the tsunami. After the earthquake, when people were alerted to run, they had to scramble through bush and climb up jagged rocks. Now, proper escape routes have been put in place up the hill.
More than 200 people attended the memorial service on Lalumanu Beach this morning, one of many services across Samoa to mark a decade since the disaster.