Real Life

All I have left is my lava-lava

Christchurch woman Wendy Pearce (56) tells of her desperate scramble up a cliff-face to escape the killer waves of the Samoan tsunami.

I still can’t sleep at night. I keep having terrible nightmares. In one dream, I’m running naked down the street being chased by a big lion trying to bite me, but in reality it was a giant wall of water that nearly killed me.

The terrifying earthquake which had woken me and my friend Margaret Coleman (57) in our fales at the Litia Sini Beach Resort had caused a sudden bout of nerves and, wearing just a lava-lava, I rushed to the toilet.

Suddenly I heard a little girl screaming, “Tsunami! oum, Dad, quick, quick!” I burst open the toilet door to see a wall of water coming towards me. All I could think was, “I’m going to die.”

I ran around the side of the toilet block straight in front of the cliff-face and, desperate for higher ground, I started climbing, grabbing rocks and tree roots and anything that would hold me. I looked behind me to see the wave crashing below. I watched fales, cars and people being thrown up in the air.

The toilet block that I had just been in was completely demolished and our two other travel companions, Stephanie Hauiti and Sharon Adams, were both sucked out to sea but then washed back in again – thankfully alive. I can’t even climb a ladder but I just kept climbing the cliff-face which was at least a few storeys high. Half-way up, I saw our friends which was such a relief.

But our joy at being reunited was shattered when we saw Abby Wutzler (10), from Wellington, the little girl who had warned us about the tsunami – she was sobbing because she thought she’d lost her mum and her dad. Her father had gone into the waves looking for her brother, not realising that he had climbed the cliff with Amy. We kept telling them their parents would be here in a minute and when they did turn up, it was so emotional.

other Kiwis weren’t so fortunate. I heard about two couples in the fales next to us who all ran across to the cliff at the same time but one victim, Mary Ann White, tripped and fell. I saw her husband crying. People kept urging us to go to higher ground so we started walking. We came to a hall, which we sheltered in for the day.

I had lost everything – the only thing I had left was the lava-lava I was wearing. That night, we were provided with accommodation at a hotel but the next day we found out quite a few people were staying at the New Zealand High Commissioner’s House, so I thought, “Right, we’re going there!”

A local woman offered to take us. When I asked her to stop at a shop so we could buy Vaseline for my sunburnt lips, she kindly went in and bought us shampoo, deodorant, moisturiser and a bottle of wine – that made us start crying again. After four days, we were finally flown home to Christchurch. Looking back now, it feels like a dream. There’s only inch between life and death. We were lucky.

If I hadn’t had that sudden urge for the toilet, I would probably have been on my bed, reading, when the wave hit. But my time wasn’t up. I will go back to Samoa, because it’s paradise, but any beach I visit now, I will be looking for the escape route.

Tragedy for Kiwi families

  • Nelson two-year-old Alfie Cunliffe was on holiday with his parents at Samoa’s Taufua Beach Resort when he was swept away by the waves. The wee boy’s father, Gary, was also carried out to sea but survived by clinging to a coral reef. Alfie’s mother Gill was dragged inland by the waves. Friends say Alfie’s parents blame themselves for the tragedy because they tried to escape in their rental car instead of fleeing on foot to higher ground with other holidaymakers. It was only when the couple were reunited at the ootootua Hospital in Apia that they realised their only child was missing. Friend Ulrich ooritz explains, “At first only Gill was there. She started crying, ‘I’ve lost Alfie.’ We thought he could be with Gary. But then they pulled Gary in alone, and that’s when she realised that no-one had Alfie.” The Cunliffes are originally from the UK but moved to Nelson to begin a new life before Alfie was born. “Alfie was a lovely little boy,” Ulrich says.

  • Waikato sisters Petria (22) and Rebecca Martin (24) have been formally identifi ed and their bodies fl own back to New Zealand. “We’ve got our girls and we’re taking them home,” mother Lynne Martin said during a press conference. “We loved our girls. We were proud of them and they knew we loved them.” “We will keep beautiful memories of them,” says dad Kerry Martin.

  • South Auckland grandmother Tauaavaga Tupuola (84) was on her first trip back to Samoa to visit her family after emigrating to New Zealand 30 years ago. She died in the tsunami. Her daughter Bula okei (28) and three-year-old granddaughter Sima were with her at the time the tsunami struck and were also swept to their deaths.

  • Raglan woman Mary Ann White (55) also lost her life in Samoa. The mother-of-three and granddmother-of-two was a rugby fanatic and a wellknown member of the Raglan community.

  • Aucklander Simon Anae (56) died of a heart attack after escaping the waves.

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