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Tongan missionaries save lives after volcanic eruption and tsunami

Missionaries who helped to save lives after the tsunami in Tonga on Jan. 15, 2022. Left to Right: Elders Malakai Ika & Richard Tui’onetoa on Kotu Island; Elders Moses Foliaki & Sefita Polata on Nomueka Island; Elder Job Naeata from the mission office. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Scenes from Malau Media of the situation in Tonga after the volcano eruption and tsunami on Jan. 15, 2022. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The ash cloud rising in the air over the island of Tongatapu taken by Lua Langi after hearing the sound of explosions at her home in Tonga on Jan. 15, 2022. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
A ship charted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is loaded with donated supplies on Jan. 22, 2022, which will be delivered to Ha’apai and other outer islands in Tonga, where an offshore volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami on Saturday, J Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
After an offshore volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami on Saturday, Jan. 15., 2022, in Tonga, volunteers from stakes in Tongatapu, Tonga, help to unload donated supplies ready to load onto a boat bound for outer islands. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

When an undersea volcano erupted on Jan. 15, 2022, Elder Malakai Ika and Elder Richard Tu’l’onetoa, serving in the Tonga Outer Islands Mission, were in their apartment on Kotu Island, about 60 miles away. Mission President Sitiveni Fehoko called them and told them to immediately run to higher ground.

As they headed up the hill, Elder Ika saw a father and two young children trying to hurry. He grabbed the children and carried them to the top. Elder Tu’l’onetoa came across an elderly woman struggling to push her walker up the hill. He picked her up and kept going.

Pacific Newsroom reported that as Elder Tu’l’onetoa neared the top, he turned around and saw a huge wave heading toward them. But suddenly the wave turned away. And when he got to the top, he realized the woman he was carrying felt almost as light as a baby for him.

Both missionaries stayed and helped other men bring more of the island’s residents to the top. 

Meanwhile, a dozen miles south on Nomuka Island, Elder Moses Foliaki and Elder Sefita Polata were watching the ocean’s strange behavior from the beach. The water had receded far out into the bay. President Fehoko called and told them to get inland to higher ground quickly.

Coastline of Tonga shows heavy blanket of volcanic ash on the countryside and structures in this January 2022 photo from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
Coastline of Tonga shows heavy blanket of volcanic ash on the countryside and structures in this January 2022 photo from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. | Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

As they ran, they said they looked to their right and saw the tsunami go over the top of a nearby island — and the wave was heading their way.

The elders came across a mother and two young children and picked up the children to carry them up the hill.

At the top, they saw the wave seem to split just as it got to the Church’s Nomueka meetinghouse. Then the volcanic ash began to fall.

Someone told the missionaries that a man was trapped in a deep lake inland, so they hurried to the site. The missionaries jumped in and pulled him to safety. They pulled two more people out of the debris as well, reported Pacific Newsroom.

While surrounded with the sorrow and heartache of that day, the missionaries knelt and prayed. They thanked God for keeping them safe. They later explained that as they did this, a wave of gratitude and love washed over them, and they knew their prayer had been answered. 

After an offshore volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami on Saturday, Jan. 15., 2022, in Tonga, volunteers from stakes in Tongatapu, Tonga, help to unload donated supplies ready to load onto a boat bound for outer islands.
After an offshore volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Tonga, volunteers from stakes in Tongatapu, Tonga, help to unload donated supplies ready to load onto a boat bound for outer islands. | Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Four people were killed and 18 injured that day. The underseas communication cable was damaged, and most communication cut off for more than a month until the cable was repaired earlier this week.

Families and communities still have a lot of rebuilding and cleanup to do. Local members have been sending relief to other islands, and within days the Church began organizing an air shipment of cargo to help victims. Other relief is on the way as well.

The First Presidency pledged assistance in the recovery and rebuilding efforts over the coming months. Their letter on Jan. 21 to members of the Church in Tonga encouraged faith and calm.

“How we love you!” the letter said. “Your deep and abiding faith in our Heavenly Father and His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, is known and admired the world over.”

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