Laura Reinhardt, a frequent magazine contributor, is in American Samoa with a team assessing World Vision’s relief response to the earthquake and tsunami.
The little girl was buried, as is the custom, in her family’s front yard in Leone, between her uncle’s and great-great grandfather’s graves. She was buried in an adult coffin. They’ve run out of children’s coffins here.
“I feel a little bit stronger now because she’s laying right there,” said Taitasi Fitiao of her daughter, Vaijoresa, 6. “I know she’s in good hands with God. And I believe I’m going to see her again some day.”
Sitting in front of her tsunami-damaged home, this bruised and battered mother told me about losing Vaijoresa. I’ve never cried so much during an interview.
Right after the 8.0 earthquake on Sept. 29, Taitasi hurried down the main road to the elementary school her children attend because she knew there was a possibility of a tsunami. Vaijoresa and her brother Phoenix, 13, were heading her way—the school sent them home after the quake.
Vaijoresa and a friend ran ahead of Phoenix. The girl met up with her mother at the village bridge, and Taitasi grabbed Vaijoresa’s hand just as the first wave hit. They stayed together until Taitasi got pinned between two cars. “Then all of a sudden, I couldn’t feel her anymore,” Taitasi said. “She just started floating away. She said, ‘Mom, please.’ She wanted to live, but I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t do anything. I knew right then she was gone.”
Taitasi thought she herself would drown, but she caught onto some branches and pulled herself out of the trap. “When I got up, I couldn’t see my daughter,” said Taitasi, overcome with emotion.
Phoenix survived when passersby in a truck pulled him in and took him to higher ground. From there he watched the wave roll in. He felt scared and sad because he wasn’t with his little sister. “I’d always protect her when she wanted to go somewhere to play,” he said. “I’d always touch her hand and take her to where she wanted to go.”
Taitasi’s husband found his wife sobbing and learned that their daughter was missing. He and oldest son Raven, 16, searched all night for the 6-year-old. The next day, searchers found Vaijoresa’s body buried under rubble. She still had her school backpack on. She loved school, her father told us. “I really miss her. I miss her a lot,” he said.
Raven and Phoenix continue to watch over their little sister, sometimes sleeping next to her grave. They both feel guilty that they could have done more to save her. Taitasi tells them, “It was no one’s fault. It was a natural disaster.”
Visible from Taitasi’s house is a small island with a lone palm tree. It’s striking, sitting out in the harbor, all by itself. Some people call the tree “The Lonely Palm Tree,” but the Fitiao family knows it by another name—Niuaveve (pronounced Nu-ah-vay-vay). Vaijoresa’s great-grandfather, who planted the tree, named it this. Taitasi gave it as a middle name for Vaijoresa. Every time Taitasi looks at the island, she feels her daughter’s presence.
Vaijoresa’s father looked out at the lone tree and said, “The tsunami couldn’t destroy it. It’s still standing, and I know my daughter is still standing.” He paused for a moment before adding: “If she’s listening, I love you, baby, and God bless you.”
See a video clip of Taitasi on World Vision’s Web site in the “My Story” section.