A Television Documentary on Aitape Tsunami Tragedy
The Aitape District of Sandaun. A better region of the Sepik. People who live along the North Coast depend on fishing and farming for their livelihood. They are predominately Catholic - in fact the first missionaries made their inroad from this corner of Papua New Guinea. Catholics celebrated 100 years of that historic event just 3 years ago on Tumleo Island near Aitape. Spiritually enriched, the people live in peace and harmony.
The 12, 000 or more people, who live in that area, concentrate in main communities or villages scattered along the waterfront. Warapu is the most populated; the others are Arop, Malol and Sissano. The villages are typical of Coastal Communities, where bush material houses surround classrooms and churches built with corrugate iron, timber and cement.
This part of Papua New Guinea has been at Peace with nature for decades until the evening of Friday July 17th 1998.
Tidal wave - as high as power polls and speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour flattered the communities. The four villages of Arop, Warapu, Malol and Sissano were directly in front of the tsunami waves. It was triggered by a massive earthquake about 30 kilometers off shore. Measuring 7 on the Ritcher scale, the earthquake generated devastating waves that caused Papua New Guinea's worse natural disaster on record. The dead will never know what happened. It will take all of their lives for the survivors to come to terms.
Friday evening July 17th was no different to any other day for the people here. If there was anything new, a school play and a disco were planned for that evening in one of the villages.
Sebastine Alusi - Gr. 2 student attending Malol Community School
"We were on our way to Arop when the sea struck us. "
Why did you go to Arop?
We went to see our friends performing at Arop.
Did they go for disco?
Everyone thought nothing of the earthquake that rocked the area just before or a little after 6 o'clock. Many of those have occurred in that part of the country before.
Bonny Sule from Arop
"When the earth quake occurred, we stopped the rugby game and we made our way up from the beach. After a while, there was a sound like a war plane. We thought it was the wind. When we looked further, it was the tidal wave."
The rest of the villagers settled into their homes either having or preparing dinner.
Dolores from Arop:
"I was frying sago."
Man at Care Center:
" I was very sick, lying inside the house when the tidal wave came."
"The frying pan was on the fire when the earth quake occurred.
Martina from Warapu:
"We were in the house cooking. We were scared and ran out of the house.
" We heard the sound of the sea and we went out to see it.
The people were too pre-occupied or simply had no reason to notice that the tide may have been too low and at an unusual time immediately after the earthquake.
Dr. Mennor Swier - Memisa Volunteer - Raihu Hospital.
"I remember we were drinking some beer and we were having dinner and when the earth quake struck, in fact we were sitting there with two priests and some local people, and they were telling us that it was only a minor earth quake not too bad in fact. And we went outside and people were telling us that the water was withdrawn, long way out from the shore so we could see all the coral just lying, And came back very slowly.
So we had a discussion with the local people about tidal waves. And In fact they said the last tidal wave was in 1907."
Experts believe that the water had been drawn out to the open sea forced by the earthquake and then released back to the beach but not as a gradual high tide.
The tsunami waves struck the coastline at hundreds of kilometers an hour bulldozing and drowning everything in its path.
"As soon as the tidal wave reached the village, the place became dark. I live and work in Siera. I was walking on the beach after visiting relatives when I felt the huge earthquake. Then the tidal wave came. I threw my bag and climbed a coconut tree. While in the tree I realized that the tidal wave had already covered me. But, somehow I survived on the coconut tree."
"As we looked beyond the beach, we could see the tidal wave coming. It was as high as a house."
Abraham from Arop:
"When the tidal wave came, people were scared and ran outside. They tried to escape but the tidal wave swept them away with disco equipment. "
"The tidal wave knocked down many of us. It caused extensive damage to our houses. We were shocked, we could've died, but the good Lord saved us."
"The big wave swept us into the lagoon. We found ourselves among the debris."
Sr. Margaret Conwei - Catholic Church Malol
"It was the earth quake first. Terrible earthquake and our water tanks were just going so badly for the water swishing everywhere that we decided that we better run outside. I think it wasn't long after that but I'm not sure I've lost time and sequence of everything, but." "I think it was before the second earth quake. There was this terrible noise. Lot of the village people came out cause we were quite close to their villages, their homes. And we were all just standing there in silence, just wondering what on earth this noise was. I've never heard anything like it before. And then the people started running down towards the beach just to see what it was. And I don't know what it was, something in me just said it was a tidal wave. I don't now why because I've never being through a tidal wave before. It was just this horrific noise and I just said it's a tidal wave and so sister Regina beside me, she screamed out with me to tell them to come back, come back it's a tidal wave. And thank God a lot of them did come back. After that, things happened so fast."
Fr. Austin Crapp ofm - Aitape Diocese Administrator
"I think this disaster along the north coast of Aitape District is on the same scale as the Mt Lamington eruption in Popondetta in 1950. We estimate now after one day of looking at the disaster that there are at least one thousand dead, many bodies are still lying on the shore, many are still floating in the lagoon."
Within about 6 minutes, the time it took for three different wave patterns to hit and re-tract, villages were gone, a generation eliminated and thousand displaced in their minds and from their birth land.
"The very serious ones is seven and this is eight. I think there are three more there but other are still around here."
On Saturday July 18th, news of the tidal wave and its trail of death and destruction reached mission and Government authorities in Aitape, Vanimo, Wewak and ultimately Port Moresby.
"Name please?" - "Julie..." - "A girl..."
"Father?" - "Jessie"
Coordinated rescue operations went into swing about 18 to 24 hours later. Before that, survivors at the disaster zone had to over-come their own state of shock, fear and pain to help those seriously injured and there were many of them, particularly children.
"When the earth quake occurred I got into a boat, I drifted but the waves capsized the boat. I lost one of my kids. After the wave receded, I swam to shore to save the people. I put children in the boat and took them to Nimas.
Later that night, I helped men and women to Amsor. I went back to save more people."
" We gathered the injured and held them in places where doctors examined them and later sent them to Wewak and Vanimo."
The calm, collective and uncompromising manner in which the injured helped the injured remains the untold strength of the people themselves.
Sr. Margaret Conwei
"This is delta Siera, this is delta Siera. Is there any one on air please, is there anyone on air, we've had a terrible disaster here, is there anyone on air, this is delta Siera."
The Catholic mission's sister Magaret Conwei, witnessed a great deal of what happened and sent out the first alarm.
Sr. Magaret Conwei
"All I know is that night when we had so many of them coming into the house and none of us nurses. All we could do is get our Detal Bandages and sticking plaster and try and clean them up. As they got worse with the brakes and this huge gashes we knew would have to be stitched.
I ran up to the scud to just try and get help just to see if there was any one who could sent help to us. So I just called up on the skied that night "is there anyone on air. "Is there anyone listening I was really desperate.
We worked almost right through the night with the people and then The next morning the first thing I rang morning I ran up again when I could not get anyone the night before. And thank God Bro. Steven was on the sked and I just said the same as I said the night before "Is there any one on air, is there anyone at all. This is delta Sierra and we've had a terrible disaster and we need help quickly. And then Bro. Stevens voice came up and I just, I think I could have hugged him through the sked (radio). It was just such a relief that somebody in the outside knew at long last that something had happened. And I sort left him to do what he had to do in Aitape. And the next thing it was Linah and another nurse, George came and I think I sort of relaxed at that minute because it was such a relief to see her."
Lenah Napmuku - Matron - Raihu Hospital
"Well it was shocking because everybody was already here and they were victims, children and adults with broken limbs, arms some with sticks still poking through their limbs like the leg; So there was no time to stand around and watch what note, like Sr. Margaret was already here. She did her best but she just rested them She collected everybody and left them there in front of the classroom. So when I came we went straight to work. We dropped down our bags and quickly ran through the patients that were there already the victims. And I had an assistance another nurse (church health worker) George. So I was identifying the patients and I got him to quickly put up drips to some of them who were in shock. And Jack Siroi, the seminarian you met was assisting there, assisting George trying to put up drips."
Rescue from outside the disaster zone came primarily from missionaries. They were among the first to reach the injured.
"I stepped on the boat and went straight to this disaster area just to check out what was really going on. I've never been in situations like this so it was very hard to picture what really the problem was. So I took I think one and a half-hour to reach the spot by boat and just came to the shore and it was absolutely devastating what has happened. Because in my opinion it was one of the most beautiful spots in this area. The whole village was absolutely gone and there was no houses more standing and people were lying on the beach and were totally devastated, swollen faces and broken arms and bones. Everybody was just wondering around like a very idealistic situation."
Br. Garry Hill ofm - Health Extension Officer (HEO) Nuku Health Centre
"When this thing happened, Br. James contacted and said "how can we help," and somebody said " we need an helicopter," and he had the contact."
"Br. James Coucher CP - diocese of Vanimo
"The first ones to respond was Highlands gold at Frieda River, Paul Green. I rang him and asked him if there was any chance of a helicopter, because there was a disaster at Vanimo. The only question he asked was 'how long did I need a helicopter for. And I wasn't able to tell him. I said one-day maybe two, three, four, five, six days; I've no idea. That was the only question he asked, and he said get back to me in ten minutes. Which I did. And he said there will be a helicopter off the ground in five minutes."
Br. Garry Hill
"They just dropped everything. Himself and Mev the pilot. They just dropped everything and came. And they worked entirely all day, all Saturday, six o'clock Sunday to six o'clock Sunday night, all day Monday. Just shuttling patients in. And also when I was one the beach there with Paul, you could see he was really affected. He was really concerned about the people. How can we do more. He mentioned there were five bodies down in the lagoon. We went and had a look at them and I walked around the lagoon and found another seven bodies. Ten of them were children, two of them were adults. Then I heard a splashing noise and there was a woman holding on to the side of a canoe there. And I called Paul down and we got this woman out of the water. She had also fractured her femur and carried her up to the chopper for an air lift."
Other choppers and fixed wings from Vanimo air, hevi lift and charters were later involved in what was a fairly large scale airlifting of the injured to safety and for medical treatment.
Br. James Coucher CP - diocese of Vanimo
"I then went to Vanimo trading and they immediately put their three planes at our service and went down to MAF and they made their planes available. So we had there five planes altogether working for three days. Getting in the supplies that were necessary and more importantly bringing out the injured people."
Some 24 to 30 hours after the Tsunami waves struck, nearly 100 seriously injured were airlift to the Aitape Hospital and 7 to Vanimo.
By Sunday large numbers of injured were airlifted to both Vanimo and Aitape as well as Wewak.
"The first couple of days, you could imagine 150 people just laid out on the floor waiting to go into theater. No telephones. It was like a real disaster area."
The busiest of the hospitals was Raihu in Aitape. The ironical background to this health facility is that the Catholic mission, which runs the hospital, decided to shut it down on Friday, the day of the tragedy.
Brian Barnes ofm - Archbishop of Port Moresby
"Closed down because the funds had not come for a long period to run the health services in the diocese. And so Raihu health centre and ten health sub centers around the diocese were all shut down because of shortage of funds on that very day, several hours before the tidal wave hit."
But the next day Saturday, Raihu became the nerve center. A major relief operation where lives were saved. By Saturday evening, 95 patients had to be treated.
Dr. Bart Vullings - Memisa Volunteer- Raihu Hospital
"The most impressive case I think was about a child who was about ten years old who came here with a cast around the leg. And I saw through the bandage the leg was severely injured. So I took her to the theatre, I saw the leg, I knew there was going to be amputated so I talked to the mother who was there and she agreed on it. She saw the leg too. I amputated and the same night she died this child. And the mother was so exhausted that she fell asleep with the child in her arms. And when I can the next morning, she was sleeping there with the dead child in her arms. I was a sight that I still remember and it's heart breaking."
For the medical personnel, nurses and doctors, Raihu may well have been a busy city hospital. Within two weeks they had to carry out 208 major surgeries. That's the number even the well-established hospitals could not describe as normal.
Dr. Mennor Swier- Memisa Volunteer- Raihu Hospital
"I think the hospital changed into a MASH scene. You know the MASH scene. It was the sort of impression I had. Because all these helicopters came in every fifteen minutes, we had these chopper coming in brought in ten totally devastated people. We had people waiting with stretchers brought them into the wards and we did the assessment over there. From there people were divided for x-rays or serious cases in ward one and two.
We tried to put up the system as good as we could and off course were not equipped and not ready for situation like this."
Dr. Bart Vullings - Memisa Volunteer- Raihu Hospital
"Well, we did not have much supplies at that stage. We couldn't work sterile for instance. We just had to wash the material as soon as possible and sock them in iodine for ten minutes and then we could re-use the scissors again. There was no other way; we only had five pair of scissors. We did not have any sterile gloves. There were no gauges so we used cotton wool and all these things. Until Sunday, we asked already for supplies and then things were made available and we could improve our standard of work. But at that time there was no other way, we just had to improvised and just get patients in and patients out and the next one in just continue working from eight o'clock in the morning until 12 o'clock at night."
Br. Garry Hill
"Bessy has got a fractured femur, and the mother held the child during the big wave. I think its about three weeks we have left the child in traction, and also the child can exercise a little bit, so it can move around. And been a very small baby at three months, it should heal very quickly.
"Grace came in with an injury where the bone was exposed. Quite a large wound which where the bone was exposed. We had a doctor who was a surgeon who cut through here so that the skin came over covered the bone with muscle and its taken quite well.
"She had another injury in the leg here. A lot of the patients here have got two or three injury. Not just one injury. And infection is a big problem. We've got to make sure that they are very clean.
So far, we've done about 208 operations in the two weeks.
See it has heal up quite well, the bone was exposed. It was actually a flap coming down and the flaps been put back."
The medical attention was crucial in the initial stages. But in this situations, the more personnel and human touch was important, particularly for the injured children. This is where Franciscan brother Garry Hill came in.
Br. Garry Hill
"If the child or the young trust you. The parents turn to trust you and they make it easier to treat the child. But if he comes in screaming and is scared of you, it's very hard to listen to his chest, or have a look at his ears. If a child trusts you and comes over and sits on you knee and you can look at him and examine him. So I carry on a bit with one of this little thing as it goes down . And the kids can play with these and before they know it they are full examine.
And just to have something different. Coming in the ward with flashing lights on your head or something. I mean you don't do it everyday. It's just an entertaining thing."
As it turned out, the disaster sent over 700 people to hospitals as inpatients. Raihu could not cope. Many had to be transferred to Vanimo, the provincial hospital of the Sundaun Province. Initially seven injured were sent to Vanimo on Saturday. The next day Sunday, the hospital was flooded. By Monday, three days after the tidal wave, the hospital was still in an emergency situation. Many seriously injured were on the edge of life and death. Here, doctors tried unsuccessfully tried to save a woman. Her death witnessed by Prime Minister Bill Skate who had gone into the disaster sight.
As medical supplies were running low in both Raihu and Vanimo, and personnel exhausted, an Australian Defense force medical unit flew into Vanimo and immediately set up a field hospitals.
The Australians helped the locals by working on some of the seriously injured.
Medical Unit Doctor- Australian Defense Force
" So the survivors have mainly leg, arm injuries. A lot of soft tissue injuries where wood and other objects have penetrated the skin, driving corals and mud deep into the wounds, producing this very infective mix that threatens limbs and at this stage threatens life."
Australian Medical Officer
"A young guy named Sebastine and he has got some burn and some gray type marks on his legs. But what we've found out as you can probably see, there is a fair little bit of swelling in both feet and that is actually gas gangrene. And if he doesn't have an operation and surgery tonight, his feet probably would not make it.."
One of the unfortunate but life saving medical decisions was amputation. In Vanimo, four had to be carried out. One of them was on ten year - old Sebastine from Malol village.
Sebastine's medical journey from Malol to Vanimo did not end there. Together with many other patients, he flew to Wewak.
"Bend your knees right back."
This is where all the after care treatment was provided particularly for the amputees as well as the nerve injuries.
Sebastine then became part of a group of amputees under the care of Peter van de Bos, a physiotherapist of the Wewak Callang Services.
Peter van de Bos - Physiotherapist- Callang Services Wewak
"We are exercising him to get this leg strong and to get hands strong so that by the time that he can get an artificial limb, he is strong enough to walk."
"Down, push strong. Lift it up, right up."
From a painful and traumatic journey from Malol , to Vanimo and on to Wewak; at least a smile, just a small laugh among the patients was a big difference.
The after care in Wewak has proved successful for some. There are those that showed remarkable recovery. But there are also those who will take a long time or never.
Peter von de Bos
"This is Iiarus, he comes from Arop. Arop was in the middle of the tidal wave. He is one of the four patients that we have with a (brakio plceslisen) That is where part of the nerves system is damaged and this arm is not working at all."
"This is Pauline. She has the same kind of condition as Iliarus. Only in her arm there is a very little moment possible so we are exercising her already, but how it is going to look like is very unpredictable."
In all disasters, whatever the magnitude, however tragic and where ever they might be, there are extra-ordinary accounts of heroic actions, miracle survivals as well as some cruel outcomes.
Aitape had several of those.
This woman lost her husband and four of her seven children.
" I was carrying my baby and holding the hand of the other child. We tried to swim but couldn't. The wave was so strong and I lost my two children.
I did not know where they were. We were separated. I prayed until morning. Then I heard my daughter Selina crying, mummy, mummy help me. I replied, Selina. She said, yes mummy, I'm here. I walked slowly through the mangroves and helped her. Then we prayed. Later people found my other daughter on the roof of a house. She was unhurt. As for my other daughter Gertrude, people took her to the bush. I found her later in hospital. I cried. Then I asked the nurses to bring her to the ward t stay with me and the other daughters."
This young mother lost her husband as well. The child she has now was only three weeks old on July 17. Her fight against the might of the tidal wave to save her is quite an extraordinary story. The mother is now in Vanimo.
Bishop Ceasare Bonivento - Diocese of Vanimo
"Spontaneously she pressed the baby to her breast. And it was the only way to save her. And when she was covered with water, the only thing she did was to lift up the baby above her head and to keep the baby above the water. After that she surfaced. And then she was able to keep the baby to safety. And she did that just because she was asking the lord to give her strength. Finally she was able to land somewhere.
She was with the other child Gorethy. Somebody called her name and he told her that Gorethy was close by and eventually she was able to gather her two children. And they are here. Still safe and sound."
In another sad story, this woman also lost her husband and children. The baby was born immediately after the tragedy.
Lady Carol Kidu
"Agnila is from Arop. During the tidal wave she lost her husband and three children. Last night in the care center at Pou, she gave birth to her new son here. "
"Seeing my son is worrying me about my dead husband."
Grace from Arop
"The tidal wave carried me into the mangroves where my leg was caught under a log. I stayed there until morning.
Who found you in the morning?
I was found by people who returned from the bush. The heard my cry for help and removed the log. My mum is alive. But my dad, baby brother and two brothers after me are dead."
In all these amazing cases of bravery, miracle survivals or as some described it, returning from hell, there are some sole survivors who lost not just families but a whole lot of relatives. Several of them see their survival not as a blessing but further punishment.
Fr. Makario Waganiwalu sm - Psychologist - Fiji
"A lot of people cannot still come to terms with the great loss and others who have lost
the mother, parents, the mothers who have lost their children, the husband who have lost
their wives and children these are still dazed still shocked.
When I talk to them and when the counselors go out, they are still very depressed. And with the depression there is a lot of weakness, they are not thinking properly they are not in the conditions to think to decide for themselves."
"If your life is not straight, tell Jesus to change you. Tell him, tell him, he can change you."
This church service three weeks later at Tales, was packed to capacity.
But immediately after the Mass, the people couldn't wait to get away from the sea and the lagoons.
Br. Jack Siroi - Catholic Church Malol
"They are all going up back to the bush where they said there is
four camps. One is Kunai that belongs to big Malol. That's Amsormayanwuar, and Tainibin is going they own a bit of land in the bush not
"Nobody is straying down in the village.
They are all just too scared. That's the answer they are gonna give. We tried to convince them to come and stay in the upper part where the station is, but it will take some time I think."
Healing the minds and the wounds is perhaps only half of the rehabilitation process. The other is coming to terms with the Sea, the beaches, the lagoons. These have been part of the people's way of life for decades. They received from them their fun and food and hid in them their sacred and believes.
Sr. Margaret Conwei.
On the Saturday morning early, we knew they'd found the babies in the baret (ditch)
there and the little bared down this way. Some body then told me that Teles was washed
out. A little girl was brought up to us. She was dead; they'd found her. We took her
down on the tractor to try and find the mother, we could not find the mother or the father
who she belongs to, we only found her family.
And then I jumped off the tractor at Yulingi and I walked dawn to Teles just to see if
there were people down there needing a hand and I met mama after mamas after mama
with little tiny babies.
And each time when I went to put a little sign of the cross on their foreheads they were
cold they were dead. I did not really cope really well at all. The mamas were going off
to plant them. I got a little more and more upset as I went along because there would
have being eight or nine that I met. Then I left them and I came back and went across to
Then I saw just dead bodies everywhere I just, think I was as stunned as the people were. You felt so helpless. I felt goodness what has happened here.
"We all live under you plan, o lord. Our families no longer live here. They are now in the bush. Some of them are still hiding. We've lost some of our family members. Father, I ask you to bless all my people who have died here. Bless people who were affected by the tidal wave. Give them strength. They are afraid and hiding. They are homeless. God I Hankyu. May you give tem a new strength to start again. For our children who died here, God, we ask you to accept their spirit and give them eternal peace."
The exact number of people killed will not be known for a long time. The number has been put so far at 2 200. Bodies that could be found received some sort of dignified burials, many were not.
The Sissano lagoon is believed to be one spot where many of the dead are today.
Its now out of bound and debates continue over whether the lagoon should be declared a national mass grave.
"And now as I go back to this places, and as I look over this emptiness. This desolate, haunted place of skeletons, dead bodies, debris everywhere, broken coconut and trees, with not a single stump of trees standing. I just simply couldn't help but weep openly."
And that in just about 6 minutes on Friday, July 17th 1998. Papua New Guinea's worse Natural disaster in its history.
Song: By John Wong
Tears fell from my eyes while watching the news on EMTV. On Friday night in July, tidal wave in Aitape.
I cried and wept for the victim. Lets pray to go for his mercy.
Sorry, sorry, Aitape, Sissano I moan with you.
Sorry, sorry, Aitape, Sissano I'm crying for you.
We are Papua New Guineans. Let's cooperate to help the victims of Aitape. Please hear the children's' cry. They don't have any parents. We must be strong to correct these difficulties. Help little children, they are our future leaders.
Sorry, sorry, Aitape, Sissano, I moan for you.
Sorry, sorry, Aitape, Sissano I'm crying for you.
The documentary was produced in order to help people to understand what really happened in Aitape on July 17th 1998. We tried to document the relief efforts carried out by the Catholic Church, members of the public as well as some NGO's.
The video "Wave" and other reports from Aitape Rehabilitation and Restoration are available from RTA or EMTV. We hope to complete a second part of the documentary called "From Care Centres to New Villages" by the end of 2000.
Fr. Zdzislaw Mlak svd,
Religious Television Association of Papua New Guinea
P.O. Box 7671, Boroko, NCD.
Tel: (675) 323 5809, Fax: (675) 311 3091,