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Flags were flown at half staff Saturday throughout American Samoa in remembrance of the Sept. 29, 2009 tsunami victims, whose names were read during a memorial service at Lions Park organized by the Rotary Club of Pago Pago along with Hawaiian Airlines.

A small crowd gathered at the Tsunami Memorial Picnic Shelter that was constructed and completed last year through a joint effort by the Rotary Club  and Hawaiian Airlines. There are two picnic shelters in the park, one each on the north and south side of the tennis court.

The shelter on the south side includes the memorial plaque with the names of the 2009 tsunami victims. Bouquets of flowers were placed in front of the memorial plaque for the service, which was attended by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regional Administrator Nancy Ward, who came to pay tribute to the victims and their families.

Rotary Club president Jackie Young said Saturday’s memorial “is a small prayer service in remembrance of our families, our friends, and especially our loved ones who lost their lives in that devastating tsunami that hit our shores...”

She said the two picnic shelters built with the support of Hawaiian Airlines “were for families of those who lost their lives in the tsunami... to bring some cheer and joy in the gatherings that one can have here.”

Rev. Iasepi Ulu, of the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa in Fagatogo, described the tsunami picnic shelter as a “sanctuary” for people to come together to meditate on God’s goodness and remember their love ones.

Ulu, who presided over the invocation and benediction for the short service, offered words of comfort to families of the 34 victims who perished that day three years ago saying, “Life is short and although life may not be fair at times, we place our trust in God. God is a good God… God is a living and loving God... we gather here to remember those that have passed on. It's not an easy day, especially for those who have lost loved ones.”

Ulu continued, “I’ve made it a point today to bring my children and my wife, to remember those who have gone before us, to teach my children the value of the importance of life and to appreciate the gifts God has given us.”

Rep. Vailiuama Steve Leasiolagi, whose mother Aionamu Leasiolagi was among those who died in the tsunami, spoke on behalf of the Fono and families of the victims. Emotional and wiping away tears, Vailiuama said the tsunami anniversary is always a very difficult time for those who lost families in the devastating tsunami.

On the tsunami anniversary, he said, they think back about their parents, sisters, brothers and even foreigners — who made American Samoa their home — who were taken on that morning of Sept. 29, 2009.

“My mom was a very humble person,” he said, adding that she came to the territory at a very young age from Samoa and learned survival skills. He thanked the Rotary Club for the memorial plaque, and the two picnic shelters which pay tribute those who perished in the tsunami.

Peter Crispin, owner of ToolShop, spoke briefly at the ceremony and recalled that the company’s night watchman “Joe” and worker “Sabrina” unfortunately “never made it thru” following the tsunami. “I like to remember them today,” he said and noted that it's always an emotional time for him.

Dante Brown told the gathering that after the tsunami he was “recruited as a behavior therapist to work with those with psychological needs” as “people were struggling” with the aftermath of the disaster. 

“Children were scared” and people were concerned with moving forward, he said and recalled “seeing the damage in the villages” from the tsunami with containers every where, cars in buildings and the roads were a mess.

However, “nobody waited for any body to come and help. Everybody picked up something, helping each other with water, food and shelter. Everyone came together in the spirit of survival,” he said.

Local Homeland Security Department deputy director Jacinta Brown shared a story that she says is never made public about Lisa Togiai, who also works at ASDHS. Brown said that the only three people who know this story, are her, Togiai and Mase Akapo, who heads the National Weather Service in Tafuna.

Brown recalled the morning of the tsunami, when Togiai — who, at the time was residing in Tula — called into the office wanting to know what she can do, especially that the tsunami was heading towards the territory making it very difficult to get on the road at the time to get to work.

Brown said she told Togiai not to come to the office because she would have put herself in danger. “But stay there and help the school officials, gather the kids and evacuate [them] to higher ground,” she said, referring to Tula Elementary School, located on the shoreline of Tula village.

“So she stayed behind, and helped the teachers gather the kids... and move them uphill,” said Brown, adding that one of these days, this story will be added to the many stories and documentation that are in place since the tsunami.

On his weekend radio program, Gov. Togiola Tulafono spoke in Samoan about the three- year anniversary and the lives lost that day. He also spoke about the importance of being prepared for events like the tsunami of September 2009.