Struggle at sea


POSTED: Thursday, October 08, 2009

A week after the tsunami, 3-year-old Ponch Patu spends his days playing with other children in the village of Leone in American Samoa.

But at night, he still has nightmares. His mother, June, said every time he hears sirens or the village bell ring, he wants to run away.

That's understandable: Patu experienced one of the more harrowing escapes from the tsunami: He was swept out to sea with his uncle, Tasi Leota, and a water-tight kitchen appliance — a 2-by-4-foot household freezer — became his lifeboat.

Leota, reached by phone in Leone on Tuesday, said there were 10 people in their house when the earthquake and tsunami struck the morning of Sept. 29.

When the first wave came, some family members scrambled onto the roof of the home. Others were able to run to safety.

Leota helped his mother into a coconut tree, while holding on to his nephew.

Leota told his mother to hold onto the tree as the wave caught him and Ponch.

Leota said the wave took them about a mile out into the ocean and he put his nephew on three pieces of lumber to keep him afloat.

Then the second wave came, bringing them back into the lagoon, about 300 feet from shore.

From the roof of their home, June Patu saw Leota and her son swept away. When the second wave came, she caught a glimpse of them again, tantalizingly close to shore. But the wave swept them back out to sea.

“;They were gone,”; she said. “;I didn't know where they went.”;

The second wave brought Leota and Ponch close to a top-loading freezer and Leota said he put his nephew inside and hung on to the appliance, which displaced enough water to float.

“;I told him not to worry, not to panic; whatever happens I'm still with him,”; Leota said.

There were five waves, Leota said, taking them in, then back out. The fifth wave deposited them near a rocky point about a mile from the village.

Leota said he never panicked and didn't try to fight the currents.

“;I wasn't trying to go against the waves,”; he said.

On shore, June Patu was frantic.

“;I was crying because I didn't see them,”; she said. “;My heart was pounding.”;

Leota made his way to shore and began walking back to the village.

Patu said she prayed, telling God, “;I want to see my son again. I want to see his face.”;

Then a neighbor told her she had seen Leota and her son walking up the road.

Patu said she turned and saw them and couldn't stop crying, this time from happiness.

Leota said all 10 members of their family living in their house survived, but two aunts died. The waves swept away everything they owned.

After re-uniting Patu and his mother, Leota said he helped other villagers search for the missing and every day since the tsunami, he has been working to clean up the village and their home.

In all the piles of debris, he said, the family has not found any trace of their belongings.

Still, he said, “;I give thanks to God for saving us from the disaster.”;