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Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 18:35 UK

Eyewitnesses: Samoa tsunami

A tsunami triggered by a strong earthquake in the South Pacific has killed more than 100 people in Samoa and American Samoa. Here two eyewitnesses in American Samoa - one a DJ who was on air when the tsunami hit, and one a writer who fled for safety with her children - speak of their experiences.

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Joey Cummings filmed the second wave hitting the harbour

Joey Cummings works for the radio station 93KHJ in Pago Pago, American Samoa. He was presenting the morning show Samoan Sunrise when the first tsunami wave hit.

Devastation in Pago Pago (image courtesy of Joey Cummings)
The tsunami hit the harbour, and people fled to the hills
My colleague John Raynar called in sick this morning, and I'm so glad he did because otherwise I would have been on the road to work when it hit.

I was sitting in for him on the morning radio show on 93KHJ when the earthquake hit, at about 7:50am. It lasted several minutes.

We immediately sent out an earthquake warning on air, to tell everyone to stay away from possible landslide areas. We also asked schools to initiate their tsunami plans to get kids up the mountains.

We sent a tsunami warning 10 minutes later as we saw the first rising water.

Our building, Pago Plaza, is located in the middle of the harbour, practically at sea level.

We stayed on the air as the water reached three or four feet in the parking lot.

The water stayed at that level for a few minutes, but then it surged to around 15 feet.

Undated image of Joey Cummings (image courtesy of Joey Cummings)
Joey Cummings was standing in as a Samoan Sunrise presenter
Trees, cars, buses, boats all rushed by in a river of mud just outside my window.

I actually saw that my own car - a new VW Beetle - was surprisingly buoyant when floating on its roof.

We continued broadcasting for the next 5 to 10 minutes, until the batteries on our back-up power system died.

Lots of office staff were panicking, and it was a struggle to keep everyone calm while I was still on the air. When we went off the air, I grabbed a video camera to try to capture some of the action.

The first thing I caught was the second wave, and me and Lupe [another presenter] praying.

All of the staff at the station went outside to the second floor balcony to see what was happening - and the air was filled with screams.

The whole of the ground floor of our building was completely washed out.

The devastation was complete. Tables, windows, jewellery, trophies, DVDs and bottles of water lay strewn across the murky floor.

The villagers immediately started looking for trapped survivors. I dedicated myself and my staff to helping those that were hurt, and gathering food and water.

Debris was everywhere. Broken furniture mixed with old tyres and trees. Children's clothing and road signs were crushed under telephone poles.

Two lesser waves came but they were equally scary.

We screamed for people to run up the mountain but they just ran down the street away from the wave rather than make a sharp left and up the steep mountain just feet away.

We walked down the road only to find that people who weren't trying to help had already begun looting the stores.

Devastation in Pago Pago (image courtesy of Joey Cummings)
When I finally left work, we drove through the area and I saw more and more horrible things
Teenagers roamed the area with spray paint, marking buildings and overturned cars with meaningless scribble.

We set up a security barrier around our building, and confirmed with plaza security that no-one was trapped inside.

Then I found my own car about 300 yards down the road, upside down in the middle of a tennis court.

I got a generator from a friend and got one of our programmes back on the air about three hours later, just spreading information.

I watched a group of Taiwanese fisherman trying to get off a 100-ft tuna boat that was leaning against the sea wall.

School buses full of kids were smiling and waving at all the excitement, while behind them there were pick-up trucks with bodies in them - their feet were hanging out over the tailgate.

Everything is so nasty here. When I finally left work, we drove through the area and I saw more and more horrible things.

Where I buy my morning snacks is a concrete slab, and the lady who makes the most delicious meat pies there is now badly injured at the hospital.

The new day spa that my girlfriend Moana works at is now tilting precariously on its foundation. The Korean store is gutted. The store where I get my lunch has a truck in it. The Sacred Heart bus has a telephone pole skewering it like some sort of crazy shish kebab.

But as we got further out of the harbour area, the damage was less and less noticeable. The radio station was ground zero for the worst natural disaster in recorded American Samoa history.



Writer Sia Figiel lives in American Samoa with her sons Malamalama and Pounamu. She, like many others on the island, heard the news of the tsunami on the radio.

We woke up this morning to the house shaking. Earthquakes in this part of the world usually shake for a minute or two but this morning the house kept shaking for a clear five minutes.

The boys and I ran outside to the clearing outside our house where our neighbours had gathered. Then just as quickly as it had appeared, everything became quiet. We returned to the house, packed everyone up and drove them to school.

Sia Figiel lives in American Samoa with her sons Malamalama and Pounamu
Sia Figiel took her children up to the mountains for safety
I dropped the kids at school. I was about to head off to work when I turned on the radio. The DJ was talking about cars in the parking lot of Pago Plaza floating like toys - and said a second and third wave were set to hit in less than an hour's time.

Instinctively, I went back to the school. I just wanted to get to my children. The road back to the school was packed with traffic - frantic parents calling out their children's names.

Teachers told us to remain calm. Mr Moi the principal was encouraging everyone to do the same, telling us that we could pick up our kids and that the children had been evacuated to the highest point in the school.

Before I got there, I heard hymns - children singing while others were praying and crying. It was quite a sight. I saw one of my sons and told him to go and look for his siblings. I did the same.

After about 15 minutes he ran to me and said everyone was at the car. I quickly ran back to the car. My 10-year-old son was in tears. "Mom, I don't wanna die" was how he greeted me. The only thought in my mind was to drive to the highest point of the island - Aoloau village.

The drive up was difficult. It seemed the entire island was heading up to Aoloau. We stayed at Aoloau for three hours, listening to the radio, to the death toll climbing. We heard reports from Samoa - the damage caused to the villages of Falelatai, Lalomanu and Aleipata.

People were dead. People were missing. Two radio stations were lost. The only one transmitting was "Showers of Blessings" radio. We listened to prayers, looking down on the waves gathering momentum out in the distance.

Meanwhile the neighbours across the street brought coffee for the adults, bottled water and soda for the children. Then we heard bells ringing from below. We didn't know what it meant - maybe another death.

I decided to return home. Our house is some way up from the coast, and I decided it was the best place to be. I made the kids breakfast and then we took a nap. I wanted the children to be as calm as possible.

When we woke, my sister had made food for us. She told us the death toll on our island had climbed to 14. Half an hour later, that number was 22, with a lot more injured.

Most deaths were in coastal areas. Villages lie in devastation, cars washed into buildings, boats washed up onto roads. And there's water everywhere.

The evening bells have just rung for evening prayer. Our prayer tonight is that of gratitude that our family and neighbours are safe. But our hearts are with those families who can not say the same, who will sleep tonight without a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. Their loss is our loss. Even the night birds feel it.




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