We awoke on Tuesday morning to the house shaking. Earthquakes in this part of the world usually last for a minute or two. But this time the house shook for five minutes. The children and I left our beds and ran outside to the clearing in front of our house, where our neighbors had already gathered. Then just as suddenly as it had started, everything became quiet, and we went back inside.
I packed up my three boys and drove them to school. Just after I’d dropped them at the gate and was heading to my office, I turned on the radio. The announcer was talking about cars floating like toys in the parking lot of the Pago Plaza shopping center and warned that the tsunami’s second and third waves were expected to hit us on Tutuila Island in less than an hour’s time. Instinctively, I swung the car back toward the school. I just wanted to get to my children.
The road was jammed with traffic and, at the school, frantic parents were calling out their children’s names. Teachers urged us to remain calm. Mr. Moi, the principal, was also encouraging everyone not to panic. Our children, he said, had been evacuated to the highest point on the school grounds, and we could pick them up there.
On my way, I heard hymns. Some children were singing, while others were praying and crying. It was quite a sight. I saw one of my sons and told him to go look for his brothers while I did the same. After 15 minutes he ran to me and said everyone was at the car, and I quickly ran there, too.
My 10-year-old was in tears. “Mom, I don’t want to die,” was how he greeted me. My only thought was to drive to the highest accessible point on Tutuila — the village of Aoloau. The drive up, usually 5 minutes, took 20; it seemed everyone was heading there. We stayed in Aoloau for three hours, listening on the car radio to updates on the rising death toll. We heard reports from the neighboring nation of Samoa, the damage that the tsunami had done to the villages of Falelatai, Lalomanu and Aleipata. People had died. People were missing. Two radio stations had been lost. The only one still transmitting was the religious station. We listened to prayers as we watched waves gathering momentum below in the distance.
Meanwhile, people living across the street from where we and many others were gathered outside our cars brought coffee and bottled water, and soda for the children. At one point, we heard bells ringing from down the mountain. We didn’t know what it meant — maybe another death.
I decided to return home. It was becoming too chaotic where we were, and the exhaust from cars and trucks climbing the hill was choking. We had to drive higher to turn the car around. As we climbed, I was amazed by the hundreds and hundreds of people atop Aoloau — this island’s entire population of 62,000, it seemed. As we descended, a tremendous amount of traffic was still on its way up.
Our house is at least six miles from the coast, and I decided we would be safe there. We got home around 11 a.m. We ate breakfast, then took a nap; I wanted the children to be as calm as possible. When we woke at around 3, my sister had made lunch. She told us the death toll on our island had climbed to 14. Half an hour later, that number became 22. And many more were injured. The deaths were mostly in the coastal areas.
The photos posted online were overwhelming. Villages lay devastated. Cars had been washed into buildings, boats onto roads. And water was everywhere. On the main road in Fagatogo, the post office was flooded.
By 6 p.m., everything was still. No wind moved the trees. I responded to e-mail messages from friends in New Zealand, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Michigan — an outpouring of concern for our island. I heard the bells ring for evening prayer. Our prayer was one of gratitude that our family and neighbors were safe. But our hearts were with — are still with — those who cannot say the same, who would sleep for the first time that night without a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. Their loss is our loss.
My cousin named Samoa, in Modesto, Calif., contacted me on Facebook to ask if I would pick up Opi, his 64-year-old father, who lives on the mountain above the coastal village of Leone, and bring him to my house. So I loaded the children into the car and drove over there. But Opi could not think of leaving his beloved Leone. I listened intently as he told the story of his day.
Opi starts every morning by walking through the village. “The quake hit as I was stretching at the gas station,” he said. “I warned Noelle to lock up and leave as soon as she could. I knew there would be big waves because the quake shook for a good five to six minutes.” As he left Noelle’s store, he waved to four old women weaving mats in a small fale — a Samoan thatched-roof shelter — across the street. “Go home!” he told them. “There’s going to be a wave coming soon.” But the old women just laughed and called out: “Have faith, Opi! God is good!”
When he got up to his house, he heard a crash, as if something had fallen from the sky. Looking down toward the village, he saw the gigantic wave advancing onto the land. He ran toward the fale to get to the four women. But as he passed the dispensary, he realized how strong the wave was, and knew that no matter how fast he ran, they would not be there.
“Still, I couldn’t stop running,” Opi said. “I just wanted to see them one more time. These women are always there at the fale. Every morning I do my rounds of the village, they are always there. Waving at me and I wave back at them.”
Before he even reached the village, the water was already up to his waist. “I knew the fate of those women,” he said. “I just wish I could have done something more. I could have gone over to them and taken them away from the fale with me in the first place. But the waves hit so fast. One minute I was waving at those old women and the next minute, they were gone.”
I asked Opi if he wanted to come with us. “No, this is where I belong,” he said. “I need to be here. There’s so much to do down here tomorrow.”
Opi then hugged us all and told us to return home. But the boys wanted to see Leone. So we took a drive down to the village. The first thing that hit us was the stench of mud. Then, we could see the devastation: cars stuffed in houses, buildings broken in half and filled with debris. The post office there was in ruins. All the houses along the coast were flattened by debris. “And I saw a shoe that must have belonged to a baby, Mom,” said one of my sons.
We noticed people from the Department of Public Works and the American Samoa Power Authority working to fix the bridge connecting Leone to the villages on the western side of Tutuila. They waved at us and told us to drive carefully. We waved back and thanked them for working so late.
On the radio, we heard one public service announcement after another. All schools were closed till further notice. Electricity was out for the night in some villages. Meetings were canceled.
We got home at 9 p.m. By 11, the children were all asleep. The neighbors’ lights were out. The dogs were quiet. The land was quiet. The trees breathed peace into our dreams.
Sia Figiel, the author of the novel Where We Once Belonged and an educational officer for the Congressional delegate from American Samoa.