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(SIGNIS). This article is based on a personal account from Bill Falakaono, a member of SIGNIS in Tonga, following the explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano located about 65 kilometres North-West of the capital Nuku'alofa.
On the evening of 15 January 2022, the light oceanic breeze across the island of Tongatapu was as normal as it could be, maybe slightly hotter than usual. It was late afternoon, and Bill Falakaono had just arrived home from a workshop preparing for their Diocesan Synod in September 2022. At that time on Saturday, he usually takes his grandkids for a drive to the seaside. Instead of going to the waterfront, he visited his cousin, whose house was on a hillside and where they could feel the breeze better. The weather was getting even nicer, and the kids were running out of the house with excitement.
A few minutes later, Bill realised that the sky began to look a little different: he could see a funnel of white clouds going up high in the sky. But, as his attention was on these strange patterns, a massive explosion came from the North-West, in the direction of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano.
Never before had he heard such an explosion; the loudness, shock, and impact were all new to him. Bill called the rest of the family and urged them to come to the hillside so they could be safe from a tsunami. His family rushed out of their house, leaving it unlocked, having packed nothing, and running for their lives to seek refuge at a higher location. Then, after a chain of thunderstorm-like explosions, waves began pouring in on the island.
The bright sunny day suddenly turned into a dark evening. Thick volcanic ash clouded the sky, becoming one of the darkest nights he had ever known. Fine volcanic stones started to fall like hail on the roofs and covered every surface in the kingdom of Tonga, which lasted until the next day.
Not too far away, the main road became jammed with vehicles making their way to higher points of the island. As they could hardly move, people parked their cars on the sides of the road and kept walking upward while thunder was rumbling above them. The power was cut off a little later, and eventually so were the phones.
Throughout this entire ordeal, one radio station never stopped broadcasting live from their studios: Radio Tonga 90 FM. While iron particles of the heavy ash had damaged the central AM tower and many radio stations, Radio Tonga had its own power generator and managed to broadcast the entire night and the following week when the rest of the world could not communicate with Tonga. About 200 meters from the studios, tsunami waves had destroyed houses and snapped trees at the waterfront.
Radio Tonga worked relentlessly to connect people and provide help and information to everyone in need during the dark hours of the volcanic eruption. They offered directions for people to find drinkable water, food, and shelter and provided assistance in countless emergencies. Thanks to the bravery of its team, the voice of Radio Tonga could be heard throughout the islands and kept hope alive.
Tongans are now trying slowly to get back to normality, but life in Tonga will never be the same. Many suffered losses of their homes and loved ones, and all have to learn to live again after a truly shocking experience. But as Bill said: "We are Christians, and we have something called hope. Our hope is rooted in a much higher level being, and our spirit has to keep hoping."
Radio Tonga is a government-owned radio and television broadcasting station with two radio stations and one television service forming the Tonga Broadcasting Commission. The commission works closely with the Catholic Diocese of Tonga, a member of SIGNIS, and airs fifty-two radio programs every year.