Real Life

Tsunami honeymooners – We ran for our lives!

Gazing across the white sandy beach to the stunning turquoise ocean, newlyweds Chrisanna and Hugo Nel thought they had found a picture-perfect paradise for their Samoan honeymoon. The Wellington couple couldn’t wait to get to their water fale – a traditional Pacific hut set on stilts above the sea – and enjoy their romantic island getaway.

But it wasn’t to be. Due to a mix-up with their booking, the water fale at Coconuts Beach Resort was not available and, instead, they were given accommodation further inland, in a treehouse overlooking a beautiful water feature. Chrisanna and Hugo tried to hide their disappointment as they looked longingly at the beachfront accommodation.

Now, after surviving the terrifying tsunami of 30 September, Chrisanna and Hugo believe that disappointing twist of fate became the lucky break that actually saved their lives.

Chrisanna remembers how she and her husband were woken that morning by the violent earthquake that pre-empted the tsunami. “Everything started creaking so we quickly got under the doorway. It went for ages and kept rumbling,” says Chrisanna (28), who is a teacher. When the noise ebbed away, the couple ventured out to their balcony and looked at the water feature below.

Chrisanna noticed the pond water lapping from side to side and voiced her concerns to Hugo about the possibility of a tsunami. “We both laughed it off,” she says, shaking her head with disbelief. Hugo (33) then took a shower but half-way through, the water suddenly cut off and they heard an alarm sounding. “No-one knew what it was,” says Hugo. “Two men ran past us. We knew something was happening but we didn’t know what. Then a guy started yelling, ‘Run! Run! Get out!'”

Caught up in the rising sense of panic, the couple joined those fleeing. “We sprinted out to the corridor of the treehouse, ran down some steps and that’s when we heard the roar of the ocean,” says Hugo. “I was on the third step when I saw the water swirling up.”

Hugo watched in horror as a four-wheel drive car was swept away and, grabbing Chrisanna, turned around and started running back up the steps. “All I could see was a big, brown rush of gushing water coming straight at us,” says Chrisanna, trembling as she recalls the most terrifying moment of her life. “Chrisanna and I looked each other in the eyes for five seconds, thinking, ‘This could be it,'” adds Hugo. Back in the treehouse, they hoped the building’s supports would withstand the torrent of water crashing against them.

“I just prayed that the treehouse would hold us and that everyone would be safe,” says Chrisanna. “But then one of the poles holding the treehouse snapped.” At that point, the first wave ebbed and they heard a man yelling for help below them. Seeing he was trapped between a big bed and the wall, they threw down a sheet, which he grabbed. “I was holding onto the sheet trying to pull it, saying, ‘I can’t hold it any longer’ and the guy was saying, ‘Please don’t let me die! Pull me up!'” Chrisanna says. “We got him up, but then we saw the next wave coming in and we thought that was it – we were all going to die.”

Amazingly, the damaged treehouse managed to withstand the power of the second wave. But the couple knew it would crumble if another wave hit and that the only chance they had was to get to higher ground immediately. “We ran through thigh-high water. We made it up the hill to the meeting place where the injured had gathered,” Chrisanna says. Looking back to the once idyllic beach, rendered unrecognisable, they knew how lucky they had been. Seeing the injured people all around them, Chrisanna and Hugo bravely joined a search party to find missing people in the flattened village of Lalomanu. The couple will continue to be haunted by the broken bodies that were found amid the rubble of the homes.

“I saw one child who looked like he was sleeping but obviously he wasn’t,” says Chrisanna, her voice barely audible. “We were there when they found a little baby and they put the body in a suitcase.” Eventually the pair were able to return to the remains of the treehouse and were amazed to find their belongings, including passports and travel documents, still there.

Now safely back home in Wellington, Chrisanna and Hugo are coming to terms with the heartbreaking loss of life and devastation they witnessed. Hugo believes it was pure luck that spared them. “There is no instruction manual for surviving a tsunami. You can’t prepare for something like this.”

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