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Disabled man swept away in tsunami swims ashore after 26 hours

A 57-year-old Tongan man who said he swam and staggered around on uninhabited islands for more than a day after getting swept out to sea in the devastating South Pacific tsunami has been hailed a ‘real life Aquaman’.

The slightly disabled retired carpenter said he did not answer when he was in the water at night as he heard his son calling out, afraid that the younger man would risk his own life trying to save his father.

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday (Jan 15) killed at least three people, sent tsunami waves rolling across the archipelago, damaging villages and resorts, and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.

Mr Lisala Folau, who lived on the small isolated island of Atata which has a population of about 60 people, was swept away when the giant waves hit at about 7 pm, he said in a radio interview to Tongan media agency Broadcom Broadcasting.

Mr Folau was painting his home when he was alerted about the tsunami by his brother, and soon the waves had gone through his house, Reuters reported.

“Bear in mind that I am disabled. I can’t walk properly… and when I can, I believe a baby can walk faster than I,” The Guardian quoted him as saying.

Mr Lisala Folau (second from left) swam for around 27 hours after getting swept to sea by the South Pacific tsunami.PHOTO: REUTERS

He and a niece climbed a tree while his brother ran to seek help. When there was a lull in the waves, they climbed down but just then a larger wave hit.

“We floated at sea, just calling out to each other,” he said. “It was dark and we could not see each other. Very soon I could not hear my niece calling anymore but I could hear my son calling.”

In that moment, he decided not to answer, he said. “The truth is no son can abandon his father. But for me, as a father I kept my silence for if I answered him he would jump in and try to rescue me. But I understand the tough situation and I thought if the worst comes it is only me.”

He eventually washed ashore on an uninhabited island. On Sunday morning he swam to another one.

At one point on Sunday he said he saw a police patrol boat heading to Atata island and waved a rag but those on board did not see him.

From the second island, he decided he could attempt to reach the main island of Tongatapu.

Around 9pm, Mr Folau said he staggered ashore there and tried to make his way towards a house.

That was when he was picked up by a passing vehicle and taken to the driver’s home.

It was estimated that he had swum a total of about 13km. It was not immediately clear what happened to his son and the niece he was with on Atata.

Another son, Talivakaola Folau, later took to Facebook to express his gratitude: “A story I’ll never forget in my life … While talking with family in Tonga my tears continued to fall when I think of my Dad swimming around in the ocean after the tsunami hit … My heart is broken imagining you drinking in the seawater Dad, but you’re a strong-willed man.”

The story went viral among Tongan groups on Facebook and other social media.

“Real life Aquaman,” said one post on Facebook, referring to the comic book and film character.  “He’s a legend,” said another post.

Atata, which is about 8 km northwest of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, or a 30-minute boat ride, has been almost entirely destroyed in the tsunami.

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