PHOTOS: SEPT. 29, 2009 — IN AMERICAN SAMOA THE EARTH SHOOK & WATERS ROSE
In the South Pacific, mornings are often so stunningly beautiful, they can take your breath away. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 was one of those mornings in American Samoa. School children were up early waiting for their buses, gardeners were out on lawns and malaes with their weed-eaters, and the bright morning light of late September came streaming through the jungle and glinted along the sparkling coastline with unusual clarity.
The turquoise sea, a sight worthy of great art, was beautiful. But the ocean, like beauty itself, can be deceptive, and Tuesday morning, the sea proved deadly. Residents of the Samoan archipelago, which stretches through both American Samoa and neighboring independent Samoa, were jolted out of bed— and into a nightmare— as the first terrifying trembler hit the islands, followed closely by a tsunami which leveled villages at sea level, turning structures into sodden piles of rubble, and tossing cars into trees.
Today marks four years since the nearly 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck causing a massive tsunami that swept through American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga, killing over 100 people and leaving behind damage estimated in the millions of dollars.
At 8.3, the earthquake would have easily qualified as a “great quake” had it occurred in a heavily populated urban area. Fortunately, the islands are not densely populated, but that makes no difference to those who lost everything. Their lives were changed forever within the minutes that elapsed from earthquake to killer wave.
It was around 6:48a.m. on Sept. 29 that the quake was felt in the Tafuna area, “it was strong and it lasted for over a minute,” according to a local Department of Homeland Security “situation report”, which notes that at 7:29a.m. they received a report of “water inundating Pago, homes and buildings destroyed vehicles floating upside down and taken by the waves.”
Many people in the town area, including Samoa News staff already on duty, felt the strong earthquake and evacuated to the parking lot. Across the street, dock and Port Administration workers also came outside.
In a span of about 10 or 12 minutes the first word came that a tsunami had been generated, as electricity went out and people from the harbor ran to higher grounds, and the first wave surged over the Pago harbor covering the main road in Fagatogo, the Fono compound and the Fagatogo malae.
Getting a call through the cell phones became difficult as lines were jammed and a cell phone call from the Leone side reported to Samoa News “massivedevastation.” At 7:40a.m. Sept. 29, ASDHS received an urgent call from DPS/EMS for a 4x4 vehicle needed on the west side of Tutuila. At 7:45 “Another wave reaching land in Pago Pago. Two (heart attack) fatalities reported from Pago Pago,” according to the “situation report.”
The report also provided communication efforts between ASDHS with the local weather station and federal officials off-island.
“8:07a.m: Reports from ASTCA of Leone receiving big wave surges on land. DPS request[ed] to receive updated report on the progress of the tsunami. An elderly lady from Leone who was swept out to sea was retrieved,” the report says.
Around 8:29a.m., according to the report, “sea water continues to impact on land in Pago Pago”. By 9:05a.m. the number of fatalities in Pago Pago increased to 5, while the Emergency Operation Center was already contacted by federal government agencies that they stood ready to send help to American Samoa.
The report also outlined the people involved when the earthquake occurred. At around 9:10, the ASDHS recorded information coming out of Leone about the bridge being washed away, and one fatality so far. By 10:56a.m. the fatality count reached 17 and the tsunami all clear signal was given.
Lt. Gov. Faoa A. Sunia, who was acting governor at the time, went on KSBS-FM around 9:30a.m. to address the territory about the situation, asking the public for calm and patience.
Close to 3p.m. KSBS-FM radio was able to reach Gov. Togiola Tulafono via cell phone and the governor informed the community that he had sent a request to President Barack Obama for an emergency declaration for American Samoa.
News of the disaster spread quickly through the islands and beyond in the hours following the quake with reports of devastation coming in from Pago Pago, Leone, Poloa, Auasi, Alao and Samoa.
National and International media spread the word, arriving in American Samoa in the following days and filing reports for Associated Press, CNN and the U.S. networks.
Contributing to this report as part of a commemorative issue published one month after the Tsunami were: Fili Sagapolutele, Tina Mata’afa, Teri Hunkin and Patty Page