'It was like Godzilla emerging from the water': Tonga rebuilding through disaster at Commonwealth Games

Tonga made it to the Commonwealth Games after a volcanic eruption in January which caused a 49ft-high Tsunami. David Ramos/Getty Images

BIRMINGHAM, England -- On a warm day in January, rugby sevens player Atieli Pakalani, who is based in Australia, was speaking on a video call with his family on Tonga's main island. They were hosting a first birthday party for his niece, and so he was chatting, in a positive mood as he shared a close family moment. They are a close-knit group.

When Pakalani put the phone down, he told his family he would take a nap but asked them to call him back before they sang happy birthday.

"I woke up to a call from them, but no-one was smiling," Pakalani says. "There was no music in the background, children were crying... that's when an explosion happened."

Then the call disconnected.

"I thought it was a gas bottle exploding or something," he says. It wasn't. On Jan. 15, an underwater volcano erupted near the small pacific island of Tonga, causing a 49ft-high Tsunami that resulted in at least three deaths -- the worst of the damage happened to the country's remote islands. Scientists at Cardiff University said it was the biggest volcanic eruption on earth since Krakatoa in 1883. The booms were heard as far away as Canada.

Pakalani's call disconnected because the internet connection in Tonga went down, as did the phone lines. It would be a month before they were partly restored, taking three months in total to get back to decent shape. "We were cut off from the world," Takitoa, the Tonga delegation's secretary general, says.

In the midst of that came preparation for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Tonga's delegation still needed to organise their visit to Birmingham and contact athletes training abroad. There were the five competitors who actually live in Tonga; they still needed to train, which became complicated too. All of that was exacerbated by the shared trauma of the friends and family of athletes who had experienced the eruption.

Takitoa's family, in the heavily-affected remote islands, relayed to him what happened. His uncle was one of the people who died. He explains it by making booming noises with his mouth. "The first explosion sounded, 'BOOM!', but nothing happened... but the second explosion, that's when the water rose."

For the next part, Takitoa cups his hand to form a wave.

"After the second explosion the water grew tall into the sky," Takitoa says. "It was like a monster emerging from the water. Like Godzilla in the movies."

Then his fingers start to flicker. "For days after, there was lightning. It was like 'pewww, pewwww, kshhhh, kshhhh,'" he says.

When the eruption finished, the black ash mushroom cloud in the air began to fall, covering the houses like snow in winter.

But Team Tonga endured. Commonwealth Games organisers granted them an extension to the deadline for registering their athletes, who did their best to maintain their training.

Sprinter Ronald Fotofili, who competes in 100m, says he didn't do any training for a month after the disaster. The country's swimmers, who would always practice in the ocean, had to abandon training due to the thick, black ash in the water. The swimming coach's house and papaya farm were greatly affected. But, just like her team, she still made it to Birmingham.

"She has made an effort to be at these Games to show her dedication and support," Tonga's chef de mission, Saliana Afu, says.

Tonga were not expecting to win any medals at these Games, Takitoa says. They are more interested in spreading their culture and appreciating the present day they find themselves in. That is their motivation.

"We don't look back. We are here to say hello to others, to smile and wave and share," Takitoa says.

After Tonga came 11th out of 15 countries in rugby sevens on Sunday, their coach said they were "happy to be here to support their other athletes." Their shot putter Ata Maama Tuutafaiva came sixth out of seven in her qualifying group, while none of their five swimmers made it to a final. When Fotofili failed to advance in the 100m heats on Tuesday, he was grinning ear-to-ear and telling reporters he was delighted just to compete.

Part of the joy of the Commonwealth Games is the rare mix of tiny countries. The tiny pacific island of Niue is represented in Birmingham, as well as a team from Tuvalu. So too is an 11-athlete lawn bowls team from Norfolk Island, whose population is just 2,188.

Rugby sevens player Pakalani appreciates that too. He still loves the pacific islands and usually visits Tonga every year, but he hasn't been back since 2019, largely because of COVID-19. The Commonwealth Games have become a way for him to represent Tonga again and feel connected to his roots.

After the Tsunami, he eventually got in touch with his family. He phoned one of the two satellite phones on the island and told them who his folks were, praying the line called him back with his parents' voice. A month or so after the Tsunami they got back in touch. Maybe they will be following how Tonga performed in the Games.

"Perhaps to a great extent our success in this competition helps us individually," Tonga chef de mission Afu says, "but also as a team and as a country in our psychological healing journey from those events."