Our friend and Peace Corps colleague Melanie has graciously permitted us to post her moving account of the impact of the sinking of the Princess Ashika ferry on the small village where she and her husband Eric were serving at the time. As background to her story, this week marked the anniversary of the sinking of the Princess Ashika, a tragedy that claimed 74 lives. A special commission was appointed to review the circumstances which led to the tragedy which found that the Princess Ashika was an old “rust bucket” and not seaworthy when it was purchased by the Tongan government a few months prior to the sinking. Trials begin next month of five individuals who are accused of approving the purchase and operation of an obviously unsafe ship.
The one year anniversary of the sinking was not commemorated in any way by the government.
Here is Melanie’s story:
“REMEMBERING AUGUST 5”
“On August 5 it will be one year since the Tongan government’s “new” passenger boat, the Princess Ashika, sank, killing some 74 people. Six of them were from our tiny village, Ha’afeva. The boat sank in the middle of the night on its way to our island. The survivors say it had been leaning on its side for two hours before it sank. It took only two minutes for the Ashika and most of the passengers to disappear under the water. The survivors were left floating in the dark. They sat waiting in lifeboats for three hours before they were rescued.
That next morning Eric and I were getting ready for school when a faifekau (minister) came to our house. He told us in Tongan that the boat sank. That was all he said. I was confused and didn’t know if I heard him correctly. I immediately thought of our school’s principal, Saia. He was on that boat. He, along with two other dads and the youth president, had gone to Nuku’alofa to buy supplies for a new school roof. They should have returned around two that morning.
I left for school right away and on my walk I didn’t see any of the usual neighbors sitting outside. The first person I saw was seven year old ‘Olivia. As Peace Corps Volunteers, most of us are lucky enough to get our own “family” in our villages. ‘Olivia’s family was ours. We spent most Sundays going to their church where the congregation consisted of their family and us. ‘Olivia’s parents Piutau and Halani spoke little English, but they tried so hard to include us. They would sing the same few English songs over and over each Sunday and try to incorporate every English word they knew into the sermon.
‘Olivia’s dad Piutau was on that boat. Olivia started telling me lots of people had probably died, including a baby from our island. She told me she wasn’t worried about her dad. She thought he would probably be coming home later that day. He was bringing her apples and candy from Nuku’alofa. I didn’t know what to tell her, so I asked her if she wanted us to pray for him. She told me she already had.
When we got to school the kids came plowing towards us, yelling everything they had heard. I learned new words that morning. The words for “lost” and “sunk” would now be a part of my vocabulary. The words for “dead” and “dead baby” and “sad” would be repeated over and over for weeks. School started like it always does, with a prayer. But that day, 37 children were praying for their families and friend’s families to come back home.
The school day went on. At eleven we all gathered for a news report on the radio. It told us nothing. At 12:30 it was lunchtime. More than ten hours had passed since the boat should have stopped in Ha’afeva. A group of kids and I started walking from the school when all of a sudden they started screaming “vaka! vaka!” and went running towards the beach. I didn’t even hear anything but by the time I got to the beach, a small boat was pulling away. I had no idea what was going on. Then I saw a group of people walking down the road towards us.
When two or more Tongans get together it’s noisy with laughter or singing. But I remember it being so quiet. There was no sound. As the group came closer, we could hear crying. The nurse, Fusi, was holding up one of the youth who was leaning on her shoulder, sobbing. He had just learned his sister died along with her husband and their first child, their newborn baby. They had gone to Nuku’alofa to have the baby and were returning home. I saw Siaosi, a giant athletic man and father of five young kids at our school. He’d been on the boat to help bring back the materials for the roof. He was crying. He had survived, but we later learned that his mother was killed.
Then someone yelled my name and told me to look. There was my principal, walking towards us. I have great respect for Saia. He is a good man and a good dad. He is the world to his four year old daughter, Kepa. Her favorite thing to do is walk around the village holding his hand. I can’t even express how it felt to see Saia walking towards us. You see, this is how the village found out who survived and who didn’t. Those that made it were just dropped off and were now walking down the road. Saia came over with tears in his eyes and hugged me. I asked him where Piutau was. He just looked at me and then continued down the road.
A group formed behind the survivors and we followed them through town. For some reason it was so confusing and Eric and I didn’t completely understand what was happening. As we walked, we gradually started to hear wailing coming from the houses. One house at a time, the survivors were visiting the families of the dead, to tell them their loved ones did not make it.
By the time Eric and I got to Piutau’s house, Saia was already sitting on the floor across from Piutau’s wife, Halani. It wasn’t until that moment that we understood that Piutau was dead. ‘Olivia’s dad was gone.
Halani sat there on the floor, crying and rocking her three year old in her lap. Through his crying, Saia was telling Halani that when the boat tipped, Piutau had been outside, so he had been safe. But Siaosi’s mother was trapped inside the cabin. Piutau went inside to help her, and that’s where he died. Our island lost Piutau, a young 30‐something faifekau with the most beautiful big smile. His four kids would now have to grow up without him. One of the last things Piutau told Eric before he left to Nuku’alofa was “you are my friend.” The loss of Siaosi’s mother meant five kids from school lost their grandma. Ha’afeva also lost one youth and the young couple with their newborn baby. Our neighbor’s sister and her three children had been on
their way to Ha’afeva for a visit. All four were killed.
Ha’afeva has fewer than 300 people. Everyone knows everyone and most are related. These deaths affected everyone. And that was just Ha’afeva. Nearby islands suffered their own losses. A survivor from a nearby island was dropped on our island that morning. He sat on the beach and told how he had been riding the boat with his wife and his nine year old daughter. When the boat tipped, he was separated from them. He could hear them yelling. His wife yelling for him to leave them, they would die there. Through tears he also told of his daughter’s screams. Her screams for him to help her. She didn’t want to die in the dark.
Three days after the boat sank was a Sunday; the first without Piutau. That day in church, I stood in awe of Halani. Her world had come crashing down, but that morning she stood up front, looking up to the heavens, singing her heart out. She was crying, but she was praising. She has a mighty faith and she knows one day she’ll see Piutau again.
The black clothes will soon be coming off. It will be a year and not much has changed in these people’s lives. They are still riding the Pulupaki; a boat said to be less seaworthy than the Ashika. They don’t ride the temporary new boat. That’s the safe one, but I’m not sure they trust it. They were told the “new” Ashika was safe. As Peace Corps Volunteers, our voices are limited. We can’t fight the government, but we can share the stories of the people around us. Those people’s voices do go unheard and too often, they are forgotten. Let’s not forget them August 5.”
Postscript: Melanie and Eric had been serving Ha’afeva for about 9 months when the Ashika tragedy occurred, happily living the quintessential Peace Corps experience in a small village with no running water, electricity for a few hours each evening to power the single light bulb in their house, and little access to events in the outside world. The village was completely reliant on the ferry for transportation and supplies. When the second ferry, the Pulupaki, was also determined to be unseaworthy last December, Eric and Melanie and other volunteers on other outer islands were transferred to new assignments on Tongatapu. A few months later ferry service to the outer islands was restored after an Indonesian boat was rented thanks to Australia and New Zealand funding and repairs were made to the Pulapaki. A new ferry has been built in Japan and will be delivered once wharf facilities have been upgraded.