But when she tried to call her family, she heard nothing.

Footage filmed in the main island resort of Tongatapu on January 18 shows downed trees and debris piled up on the shores. (Reuters)

“Our ears were ringing, we couldn’t hear each other speak,” she said in an interview on Friday. “What we did was just imitate ourselves to evacuate, get in the car and drive away, away from shore.”

The massive eruption that killed at least three people and blanketed Tonga in ash also cut off the Pacific nation’s communications with the outside world. The Tongan diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Pacific were eagerly awaiting news of their loved ones.

However, with some satellite phone connection restored in recent days, stories of Tongan shock, survival and heroism are beginning to emerge.

Ash that fell like sooty snow for two days blanketed the airport runway, making relief flights impossible. Lacking heavy equipment, the Tongans came out in force to sweep the runway by hand, allowing Australian and New Zealand military cargo planes to land on Thursday.

“We had people who came from the villages, we had [the Tongan king’s] the armed forces were coming, we had volunteer firefighters,” Kupu said. “Normally cleaning the track would take two weeks, but it only took us four days because we all got together.”

“There’s a lot of work going on here right now,” she said. “The roads are clearing up, we have little mini mountains of dust on the sidewalks and driveways. Even the houses were pulverized, the vehicles. We are cleaning little by little. »

The arrival of much-needed supplies, including clean water to replace stores contaminated with salt water and ash, has given the archipelago, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, a boost.

But the strict protocols that have kept the coronavirus out of Tonga also mean islanders will have to wait a bit longer to access these supplies. Foreign governments and aid organizations accepted contactless deposits.

Masked Australian troops unloaded supplies from a cargo plane on Thursday as Tongan authorities in full protective gear supervised the operation, according to pictures released by the Australian military on Friday.

The supplies were then quarantined for three days, Kupu said. A second Australian flight has been turned back after a positive coronavirus case was found on board, the Guardian reported.

As help arrived, stories of the Tongan ordeal began to filter through.

The most notable story is that of Lisala Folau, a 57-year-old retired carpenter who told Kupu’s Broadcom radio station that he had been swept out to sea by the tsunami.

Folau said he was painting his home on Atata Island on Saturday when his brother warned him of the approaching wall of water. When 20ft waves started hitting his house, he climbed a tree to escape. He came down when he thought the waves had passed, only for an even bigger wave to carry him and his nephew away.

“We floated out to sea, just calling each other,” he said, according to a transcription of the interview posted online and verified by Kupu. “It was dark and we couldn’t see each other.”

Soon Folau could no longer hear his nephew, but he could hear his son calling. “The truth is that no son can abandon his father. But for me, as a father, I kept silent because if I answered him, he [have] jumped up and tried to save me,” he said.

“I thought if I answered him he would come and we would both suffer, so I was floating, crushed by the big waves,” Folau said, adding that he tried to find something to hold on to so that he survives, or his family could at least find his body.

“Don’t forget I’m disabled,” he told the station. “I believe a baby can walk faster than me.”

Nonetheless, Folau said he managed to drift and swim for more than 24 hours. At one point, he said he tried to wave at a police patrol boat, but didn’t detect it.

Eventually he staggered to earth and was picked up by a passing motorist, he said.

Folau’s nephew and son also survived. Her story quickly gained attention, despite Tonga’s still limited internet.

Kupu had just completed an in-person interview with Folau on Friday, cutting off a phone conversation to say goodbye to the man whose story earned him the nickname “Aquaman.”

“I asked him if he knew what Aquaman was, and he said no,” she said with a laugh.

“I said, ‘Do you know you’re famous? Everyone is talking about you,” she added.

Tonga’s most famous survivor smiled and shook his head.