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Tsunami honeymoon – looting, tragedy

Oct 7th, 2009 | By | Category: Front Page Layout, Latest News, News

“Highland” villagers looting hotels, NZ High Commission staff refusing to let Kiwi survivors make toll calls, tragic scenes – memories that will linger forever for a honeymooning Wellington couple:


HIGH DRY: A fishing boat left in the trees at Coconuts Beach Resort on the southern coast of Upolu Island.

A BABY’S body in a suitcase. That will be one of many haunting honeymoon memories for Wellington’s Hugo and Chrisanna Nel.


UNHAPPY HONEYMOON: Hugo and Chrisanna Nel before the big waves struck.

The Hataitai couple, who got married in Hugo’s native South Africa, cannot forget scenes from the Samoan tsunami devastation:

  • a couple being engulfed by the wave,
  • a man begging for them to save his life,
  • hearing cries of “I don’t know where my mum is”,and  “I’ve lost my husband.”

It is a honeymoon they will never forget – for all the wrong reasons.

Hugo (33) a plumber and Chrisanna (28) a primary school teacher (right), survived the tsunami unharmed but disillusioned, not only from witnessing the death and destruction but the looting and treatment of survivors that followed.

The Nels had been staying at Coconuts Beach Resort on the southern coast of Upolu Island near Siumu when three tsunami waves hit.

They assumed villagers arriving in cars at the destroyed resort immediately after the second wave had come to help search for survivors. But the villagers were only interested in manipulating the tragedy.

“They were carrying out cases of beer…bikes…all the hotel stuff,” Chrisanna says. “I could understand people who had lost everything trying to salvage stuff to make their families lives a bit easier, but these people had lost nothing.

“These people had been living up in the villages. They hadn’t been affected by the waves.”

SamoaMAIN6Treatment of Kiwis who survived the ordeal by the New Zealand High Commission also upset the couple.

After hearing from Australians their government was putting them up in accommodation and trying to evacuate them as soon as possible, Mr and Mrs Nel went to the New Zealand High Commission in Apia to see what it could do for them.

Not much, it turned out.

“New Zealand sucks!” was a comment repeated by NZ citizens who went to the High Commission looking for help – which they didn’t receive.

People congregating at the High Commission who wanted to call their families to tell them they were safe, were told by staff: “You can make local calls only.”

Six Kiwis who had been surfing at the time of the tsunami  had only what they were wearing.

“They were told [by staff] ‘Here’s a phone.  You can make local calls around to find accommodation’,” Chrisanna recalls.

“We were fine, but these people had lost everything. They had nearly died.”

SamoaMAIN8The NZ High Commission was offering money – as a loan.

The Nels, who were found accommodation by Coconuts Beach Resort, shared their room with the six others.

They later heard theHigh Commission was providing accommodation for people in the same hotel where they were staying.

“They should have done that right from the start,” she says. “It’s just really disappointing.”

The Australian Government announced yesterday that all citizens involved in the tsunami will be given $A1000 dollars.

The tsunami death toll stands at 176, including seven New Zealanders.


The Nels' resort was on the south coast of Samoa (at left), but an earlier one they stayed at in Lalomanu (at right tip of the mainland) was hit even worse.

Surviving the tsunami

The Nels’ story of trauma as it unfolded at their honeymoon resort:

The earthquake which triggered the tsunami woke the Nels in their elevated room at Coconuts Beach Resort around 7am on September 29.

They discussed the possibility of a tsunami, but dismissed the thought with the words “it can’t really happen to us”, before getting dressed.

A screeching alarm and the sight of a man sprinting inland shouting “Run!” demonstrated how wrong they were.


BEFORE and AFTER: Above - the Nels' resort before the disaster, and below, what it looked like after tsunami waves crashed through.


Looking up, they could see the brown mass of water carrying a jeep and roofs 20 metres from where they stood.

As they turned to flee, Chrisanna could hear the water rushing behind them.

They were racing down the stairs from their room as the water surged forward, forcing them to retreat back up the stairs.

Chrisanna: “That’s just when I started praying,” holding onto a pole which held up their structure.

“That’s when you just realise, there is nothing you can do.  If you are going to die, you are going to die now.  You can’t stop this wave…you’re at the mercy of its power.”

Hugo, watched helplessly as a couple standing behind a wall disappeared in the water as the wave engulfed them from both sides.

They called out encouragement to a man they could see clutching a palm tree.

Hugo: “They were a couple that stayed right next to us that, 10 seconds before, managed to get down the stairs. His wife had been…clinging onto his back and the force of [the wave] took her as well.”

As the wave receded, he managed to climb onto the platform with the others. His wife was later found holding onto another tree.

A man trapped behind a bed in the room below was shouting: “Please help me. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”

They pulled him to safety just as the second wave came through.

Once the second wave receded, a man told them to follow him to higher ground before the third wave returned.

“We just ran. We sprinted probably a 100 metres.”

They arrived at the meeting point to find people struggling to cope with the disaster. People were hysterical, and crying.

An Australian man, husband of Maree Blacker, who didn’t survive the tsunami, was struggling with his broken jaw to ask for his wife.

As those worst injured were taken to hospital, the Nels, along with four others, opted to stay and comb the area for Maree, before the danger of another wave forced them to evacuate toApia.


The aftermath

The next morning, while travelling on the back of a Red Cross truck as a volunteer, Chrisana saw “utter destruction… completely devastated” areas around Lalomanu.

The beach of Fao Fao Beach Fales where they had been staying two days earlier was unrecognisable.

The morning was spent giving supplies to locals outside the hospital in Lalomanu, where they had unhindered views of the temporary tarpaulin morgue out front and families checking the bodies for loved ones, loading their relatives on the back of trucks for burial.

“There were so many bodies they couldn’t fit in the morgue.”

A boat brought in corpses found on the reef: “It was a child…in a plastic bag…you could see the whole outline of a baby’s body in the bag,” says Hugo.

They were then asked to search the rubble for bodies. Chrisanna: “I’m just so glad we never found anyone.”

Later, a little suitcase came out on a stretcher with a baby’s body inside.

After that, they had had enough and returned to Apia for the night and then the flight home to Wellington.

The Nels encourage people to donate to the Red Cross, which was helping on the scene immediately.

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