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Courageous Tongan Missionaries Save Lives After Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami

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The entire nation of Tonga has been impacted by the events of 15 January 2022, when an undersea volcanic eruption spewed ash and rocks over nearby islands, and also triggered a devastating tsunami.

Homes have been damaged or destroyed. Families and communities continue to clean up and rebuild, often lending a hand to neighbors, extended families, and members of their congregations.

Four people died and 18 were injured as a result of the natural disaster. Communication is still intermittent and patchy, and aid is still required to sustain life and help communities rebuild.

Amidst the tragedy of the events of 15 January, there are stories of courage and heroism. Two such stories involve missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Missionaries who helped to save lives in the Tonga tsunami. Left to Right: Elders Malakai Ika & Richard Tui’onetoa on Kotu Island; Elders Moses Foliaki & Sefita Polata on Nomueka Island; Elder Job Naeata from the mission office.

The eruption occurred 65 kilometers from the main island of Tongatapu which was hit by a tsunami and was covered with ash. Sites along the west coast were severely damaged. Other islands north of the volcano were also in the direct path of the tsunami which struck them with terrible force.

The Church has two missions in Tonga, one for the main island and a second one for the outer islands. Sitiveni Fehoko is the president of the outer islands mission, which has about 135 missionaries.

When he heard about the volcano, he knew there would be a dangerous tsunami. President Fehoko grabbed his cell phone and began to call each group of missionaries on the islands closest to the volcano to warn them and tell them to head to the highest ground as soon as possible.

Elder Malakai Ika and Elder Richard Tu’l’onetoa were in their missionary apartment on Kotu Island, about 90 kilometers from the volcano. They received the call from President Fehoko who told them to leave immediately and run to higher ground.

The missionaries did just that and called out to others to head up the hill. Not everyone heeded their warning, as they were curious and wanted to see what was happening in the ocean. Elder Ika recognized a father and two young children trying to hurry up the hill.

He grabbed the children and carried them to the top. Elder Tu’l’onetoa heard a cry for help and ran back to find an elderly woman crying and struggling to push her walker up the hill. He picked her up and started back up the hill.

As he neared the top, he turned around and saw a huge wave heading towards them and he thought they would be overtaken. Suddenly, the wave turned away and didn’t even touch them.

When he got to the top, he realized how light the woman felt to carry, almost as light as a baby. Both missionaries stayed and helped other men bring the island residents to the top. The Tongan Navy later estimated that the tsunami that hit Kotu was over 15 meters feet high.

Twenty kilometers south on Nomuka Island, Elder Moses Foliaki and Elder Sefita Polata were on the beach and had been watching the strange behavior of the ocean with water receding far out into the bay.

Nomuka Island

As they watched the ocean, they received a call from President Fehoko telling them to leave the coastline and head inland. They immediately grabbed their scriptures and headed to higher ground. As they ran, they looked to their right and saw the tsunami wave go right over the top of the nearby Nomukeiki Island and saw that it was heading their way.

They kept running and came across a mother and two young children. They picked up the children and carried them to the top of the hill.

At the top, they looked back and saw a wave coming up the island but it is seemed to split just as it got to the Church’s Nomueka meetinghouse, leaving it undamaged. From this vantage point, they watched as volcanic ash began to fall and people ran to find shelter.

The young missionaries realized that everyone would be thirsty. They remembered a large number of bottles of water that their mission president had sent them earlier to store in the Church building. They went to the building, got the water, and started passing it out to those present.

One of the people there told them that a Church member was trapped in a deep lake inland so they hurried to the site. It was filled with debris including dead animals and no one would go in, because of the danger. A man was struggling to keep his head above water so the missionaries leaped in, pulling him to safety. They saw two more people trapped in the debris and pulled them out as well. One man was injured, one had drowned.

As they stood there, they thought of all the sorrow and heartache they had seen and heard that day. All around them, they could hear people complaining about what had happened and how terrible it was. The missionaries knelt down and started praying, thanking God for keeping them safe. They later explained that as they did this, a wave of gratitude and love washed over them, and they knew their prayer had been answered.

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