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Earthquake/Tsunami report from American Samoa - 29 Sep 2009

By Sue Richards last modified Oct 21, 2009 09:11 AM

Published: 2009-10-21 09:11:09
Topics: Weather
Countries: American Samoa , Samoa

Tuesday Morning (Sep.29 2009)

The Earthquake

I awoke after a fitful sleep at 5 a.m. I then made my way, in the dark, down to the phone station as a flock of giant fruit bats glided past me through the morning haze. I needed to make a call regarding parts that we needed shipped to Samoa to fix our broken head stay. (There is a 3 hour time difference with California.) As I returned to the boat a massive earthquake hit us.

We were docked alongside a large cement wharf with seven other sailboats. The earthquake lasted around 1 1/2 minutes and before it ended everyone was up and out of their boats. We all exchanged comments on the magnitude of the earthquake and how long it lasted.

After about 10 minutes everyone returned to their boats to start their day. I went below to get another hour of sleep and as I stepped down one of our crew members, Emily, was coming up. She was coming up to do yoga on the dock. This is her normal morning onshore routine and luckily this early morning ritual gave us a slight warning to what happened next.

The Tsunami - Water Rushing Out

A few minutes later, from below decks, I heard a heavy creaking and groaning. Then, we heard Emily yelling at us to get up topside. I jumped up on deck and all I could see was water rushing out and huge dripping pilings next to my head. I looked up 15 feet and saw Emily's shoes and heard her screaming at us to escape. Luckily, Matt had left his sharp knife by the companionway and I immediately began slashing the dock lines that weren't already broken by the strain. Meanwhile, the boys were frantically pushing the boat away from the concrete pilings with their soon bloodied hands and yelling for Emily to run. The water was sucking out so much that all the sailboats around us were hitting bottom and leaning over on their sides. Somehow "Banyan" was in water just a little deeper.

Emily was trying to climb back aboard the boat. As the boat sunk lower and lower the mast and the rigging leaned over and pushed against the cement dock where Emily was attempting to climb down. She was pressed hard against a giant fender tire and our wire rigging. After barely squeezing out she fell onto the deck of our boat. Amidst the panic she told me later that she then decided to climb back onto the tire and then the dock and make a run for it.

I was unaware of what was going on due to our canopy blocking my view. I decided to quickly fire up the engine and to slash the last line attached to our stern. I gunned her full throttle and headed out into the harbor. We made it about 15 feet away from the dock when I realized Emily wasn't on board.

The Tsunami - Water Rushing In

The next instant the water switched directions and came flooding back towards us. We went from almost dry land into a surge of water 10-15 feet high. I shoved the throttle to full and we actually traveled up the face of the oncoming tsunami wave. Luckily, the face was only a 45 or so degree angle. We were able to actually motor up and over it. The feeling was surreal. I must have put the throttle to full just as the surge hit us. The boat remained 15-20 feet from the dock and we miraculously held our ground against the incoming flow.

From our vantage point we saw Emily wade through the rushing water to a light post on the dock. She clung to this post as the water began to rise ever higher. The other six boats on the dock hadn't slashed their lines quickly enough, so as the water rose they all began to bunch up and smash against each other as they got crushed under the dock. The catamaran, directly in front of us, got one of her hulls stuck under the dock and was crushed as the water rose. Within seconds her bow snapped and the boat sprung into the air with a violent rush.

Our eyes were glued to Emily as she clung to the light pole. Soon the water had risen above her head and she disappeared from our view. Mike and I frantically attempted to launch the dinghy in hopes of trying to save her. As soon as we launched the dinghy, with the motor attached, the force of the tsunamis surge hit us again and the dingy instantly flipped over. At this time a sailboat on the other side of the dock broke free and was thrown up onto the dock. The water had risen more than 30 feet and this 45-foot sail boat was soon sliding along the cement dock towards Emily clinging to her pole. Somehow, the captain fired up his engine, cut his lines and was able to motor off the dock narrowly avoiding the light pole.

The Tsunami - The Second Surge

Soon the water sucked back out to sea and we could see Emily running from the light pole to the edge of the dock. We all frantically yelled at her to run to high ground. She then took off towards the dock gate and the side of the mountain.

When a second surge hit us she actually struggled through waist deep water to make it to the end of the dock. From the safety of our boat we peered through the binoculars and could see that she had made it to safety. It would be hours before we were finally able to find her again and to learn that she had run straight up the side of the jungle covered hill. It was a barefoot hike of more than 300 vertical feet. After reaching the summit she found a tree and climbed it to get a bird’s eye view of the whole bay.

By this time the few sailboats that hadn't been damaged too badly made their way out to where we were circling around in deep water. We then heard frantic yelling coming from the boat that had been tied up directly behind us. I jumped in the dinghy and went over to see if I could help. The woman was hysterical. She told me her husband had fallen off the boat while attempting to cut the dock lines. She actually witnessed him getting sucked into the water and carried away. We later learned from Emily that, from her vantage point on high ground, she could see huge whirlpools sucking docks and containers under water. I quickly went around the distraught woman’s boat and cleaned up her lines to avoid getting them sucked into the propeller.

The Aftermath

The next 3-4 hours were spent motoring around looking for Emily and the woman’s husband. After everything had subsided Mike jumped into the dinghy and I gave him a ride to shore in hopes of finding Emily somewhere. As we approached the dock we realized that our bicycle and generator were hanging by their chain cable off the side of the dock. We pulled them both dripping onto the dock.

Mike jumped on the bike and set off through the disaster zone to look for Emily. Later Mike told us that he had gone to the head of the bay. He found a friend of ours whose boat was wrecked. His boat was stranded high up on a grassy bluff. Mike helped him unload his valuables as looters were instantly ransacking stores, shops and boats. It was total anarchy. When he turned around to continue his search for Emily he realized his bike had been stolen.

He then returned on foot through the streets where gangs of teenagers were running rampant looting and bashing everything with sticks that they all carried. Somehow Mike followed a trail of people who had seen the white "palangi girl". He eventually found her at the top of the mountain still perched in a tree. We were completely relieved to hear the radio report from him stating that she was high, dry and uninjured.

I hope to have more reports on the aftermath once I get a chance. We are all pretty shaken, but so thankful to have escaped with no injuries. Our "Banyan" suffered no damage at all and we only received minor scrapes and cuts. Just today we finally fixed our headstay in a “jury rig” fashion with a chain extension. Under the circumstances that is the best repair that we can do and it will be fine. We are going to use some jib sails we salvaged (in place of our damaged self furling jib—damage not from tsunami, but done previously to arriving in Samoa) off a wrecked boat that we helped the owner unload. Everyone wants to leave this place.

Jody Lemmon SY Banyan Mason 43