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Families face desperate choice


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POSTED: Sunday, October 04, 2009

LEONE, American Samoa » Taitasi Suapaia Fitiao is preparing for every parent's nightmare - burying her young child.

Her 6-year-old daughter, Vaijoresa, was ripped from her arms as an enormous wave from Tuesday's tsunami swept them up. As she floated out of reach, Vaijoresa pleaded, “;Mom, please.”;

“;I just can't believe that she's gone. At such a young age, you know?”; Taitasi Fitiao said yesterday while sitting on her porch next to a shrine to her daughter.

She said she just hopes her daughter didn't suffer too much pain.

It's difficult talking about it, but Taitasi said she wants the world to know how beautiful Vaijoresa was.

Painful stories are heard with heart-rending frequency these days in American Samoa and neighboring Samoa, where tsunami waves roared ashore after an earthquake with a magnitude of up to 8.3, killing at least 170 people.

The figure could rise with at least eight people on Samoa still missing.

A national prayer service for victims and survivors is scheduled for today at the headquarters of the Congregational Christian Church of America Samoa, the largest religious denomination in the U.S. territory.

In Samoa, scores of grieving people made a heartbreaking decision yesterday to sign over victims of the tsunami to the state for burial rather than take them back to ravaged villages for traditional funerals.

Government ministers told a congregation of 100 village and family leaders that the state would carry the costs of mass graves of up to 20 in a new cemetery in the capital of Apia on Thursday, following a memorial service in a nearby sports stadium.

The proposition was voluntary and the government will consider financial assistance to grieving relatives who elect to take their loved ones home.

               

     

 

RELIEF EFFORTS

        » Bank of Hawaii: Make checks to “;Bank of Hawaii American Samoa Relief Fund”; and deliver to any branch.
       

» Office of the American Samoa Governor: Accepting items including canned food, bottled water and rice; 1427 Dillingham Blvd., Suite 210.

       

Government minister Fiana Naomi said she expected about half of Samoa's 129 victims would be buried there. Tears welled in her eyes as she said the mass funeral was a radical departure from Samoan tradition.

But she said many of the village homes near where the relatives would traditionally be buried were gone and might not be replaced.

“;It's very different, but it's very unusual circumstances,”; she said. “;The government sees the devastated areas, there are no buildings there, some villages might be relocated, people have lost everything and they can't hold ceremonies in the usual ways.”;

Some leaders were concerned about the bodies remaining for so long in the city's overcrowded morgue.

Friday will be the day that Taitasi buries the youngest of her seven children, the active first-grader who was rushing home from school with two cousins after the earthquake hit. Taitasi saw them and grabbed Vaijoresa just as an enormous wave hit. It carried them inland, where two large trucks sandwiched them, scraping the skin off Taitasi's right hand and forcing her to lose her grip on her daughter.

Vaijoresa was found the next morning. Her cousin, a girl, was also found dead. A boy cousin is still missing.

The family will hold a joint service for the girls. Another memorial for the boy will be held at the bridge near where he was swept away.

“;I'm hanging in there. I have to be strong for my other children and I believe she's in good hands with God,”; Taitasi said.

The burials come as officials shift their focus from rescuing lives to providing survivors with food, water and power, but they stressed it didn't mean they were giving up on the missing.

Electricity and water services were restored in about half of the affected villages in Samoa and American Samoa, and almost all of the territory was expected to have power from generators within three to five days, said Ken Tingman, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's coordinating officer.