Laura Reinhardt, a frequent magazine contributor, is in American Samoa with a team assessing World Vision’s relief response to the earthquake and tsunami.
When I stepped off the plane in Pago Pago (pronounced Pongo Pongo), the capital of American Samoa, late Thursday night, I had no idea what to expect. I report on World Vision’s U.S. Programs, and this is U.S. territory, but until the earthquake and tsunami, I didn’t know much about these South Pacific islands.
Directly from the airport, I had my first taste of Samoan hospitality. Videographer Tom Costanza and I stopped at Alofa Tunoa Church, where Tom would stay. But instead of just dropping him off, we were invited to tea with Bishop Tevai and his wife, Pastor Amy. Though it was late, they served us toast, crackers, and fried eggs.
Friday morning, on the way to the village of Leone, we got our first look at the destruction wrought by the tsunami: a minivan smashed into a building; homes with walls ripped out and all the contents strewn about in the yard. On a bridge, flowers and leis honored villagers who lost their lives.
We met Robert Toelupe, a former Navy man who used to live in Bremerton, Wash. (not far from World Vision’s U.S. headquarters). He saw us taking pictures of his family’s guest house, which he told us was one of the oldest buildings in the village. It had withstood numerous hurricanes. He said he thought it would have continued standing if not for the minivan the waves hurled into it.
Robert described the day of the tsunami. Using his Navy training, he helped pull people from the water. He tearfully recalled finding a little girl, about 6 years old, buried up to her waist in sand. He attempted to pull her out, but she was already dead—one of 10 people in the village killed. Another person is still missing.
Ropati Opa hobbled around the beach on crutches due to a foot injury he sustained during the tsunami. He estimated that the wall of water reached as high as 45 feet. He and his wife tried to outrun the first wave. When the water got up to his waist, his wife was ready to give up. He told her, “This is not the way you’re going to die.”
He started carrying her on his shoulders. Then he saw two elderly women also struggling. He picked them up, one on each arm. The water rose over his head and he struggled to breathe as he carried the three women to safety.
Afterward, Ropati went back to help more people and found a little girl in the water. He grabbed hold of her, but then a car carried along by the second wave hit him, breaking three of his ribs. The blow caused him to lose his grip on the girl. They found her later, drowned. The girl was about 8, close in age to his own grandchildren. “I still feel bad about that,” he said through his tears.
Later that day, the setting sun lit up a cross on the beach erected as a memorial to a group of elderly women who used to spend their days sitting there weaving baskets, keeping traditional Samoan crafts alive. Some young people pulled up in front of the cross and began to sing. With their music, they hoped to bring comfort to survivors.
Read more from Laura in Samoa tomorrow.