Lalomanu Beach, Samoa. Four days after the Tsunami. The bodies have been carried away and the funerals are over. But the beach still looks exactly as it did a few hours after the wave struck. Smoking ruins.
Sandals, sunscreen, pillows, cell phones and passports still lie scattered among the splintered wood of the fales, piled up against the the coconut palms, snapped off at chest level by the force of the wave.
After helping some of the families on the beach, one of the locals heard me asking who the heroes of the Tsunami rescue were. He introduced me to 'Tele' and we stood next to one of the beach fires and talked a long time about his experience that morning. He worked at Tafua's Fales and was up early that day. He felt the powerful earthquake and when he looked around, he was concerned that nobody seemed to be getting out of the fales. At that point he looked to the sea and saw it sucking back toward the reef. He immediately started running door to door to get people out of the fales, banging and yelling "Tsunami coming! Run! Run up the hill! Run NOW!!!' Then, just before the 25 foot high wall of water approached, he turned and made a dash for the hill behind the camp with a New Zealand woman tourist he had just warned. They couldn't get up the hill fast enough and the wave hit them. The 'wall' of water, as he described it, crashed into the line of fales and was now full of splintered timber and sharp pieces of tin roofing. He and the woman were battered by the waves and the debris, just out of safety's reach. He suffered some contusions and abrasions and lost a couple teeth, but the New Zealander was more seriously injured and the wall of water began to recede and suck her backwards. He held onto her arm with one hand and a palm tree with the other and saved her life.
We sat in utter silence as he told the story. There was nobody else helping them clean up the debris on the beach. Everything was being moved by hand. He said he needed to get back to work although it was now after dark. I asked to take a photo of him, suggesting that people really needed to hear his story. He shrugged off the suggestion but ultimately agreed to a couple shots and then his friends all started calling him 'movie star' and they all laughed, mocked each other and wrestled a bit. Then three of them asked to have their photos taken as well, all doing their best imitation of James Dean. Then they thanked us for coming to help, punched each other in the shoulder and went back to work, still laughing. It was a poignant ending of a powerfully emotional day.
They say it is a Samoan tradition that you never say goodnight without a smile on your face, and that was true here once again, even on this day, in this twilight, on this darkest of all nights.