“Wari pua mao apimu wari? ( Would you have any betel nut there uncle?).”
I heard the fainted voice of Natasha Kanarihu to our rescuer as we were swept into the boat.
“Mao wari, woi komu noó. (No uncle,… but at home).
The reply from our rescuer was the last I faintly heard and then I floated into darkness.”
Philomena Aihoraa one of the seven survivors of the recent Areáre to Marau boat-crossing tragedy that killed 5 people and 12 lost at sea reflected that fateful Wednesday and her 27 hours sea ordeal.
On Wednesday June 17 at 5.30am two overloaded motor powered open boats carrying more than 40 people –mostly youths from Harumou village in West Areáre, Malaita province set out to Marau, more than 60 km on East Guadalcanal across the indispensable strait .
They were on a youth mission to Areáre speaking Marau Sound on East Guadalcanal to raise funds for their local church.
The bigger boat powered by a 60 horse power engine arrived safely, but the other boat powered by a double 25 and 15 horse power engines and carrying 24 people, a generator, 2 big speakers, bags of rice and dishes of cooked food met its tragic fate on the high seas.
“When I opened my eyes, I was at the Marau clinic, then the first person I saw was Ezekiel Maúasi sitting next to us. Philomena said.
On Wednesday night after more than 10 hours at sea Mary, Kanarihu, Gelinda, Ezekiel Maúasi and Philomena have drifted together and have no idea of the rest of their group. It was dark with strong wind, swift currents and high seas.
“Ezekiel kept telling us that he saw a steamer and would swim to it to get water for us. He asked us many times before we allowed him to go. But first he led us in prayer before he left.” Philomena recalled.
“He swam off and disappeared into the night. We do not know where he was or whether we will ever see him again – until we saw him at the clinic.” She said with a sad smile.
Ezekiel had swam alone throughout the night and that day Thursday until he was miraculously sighted and rescued by a Telekom boat who alerted local searchers to find Philomena and five others on Thursday afternoon.
Laying on the sick bed at Marau clinic with her other handful of survivors, Philomena said although she was happy to be alive, the sadness of the loss, the fate of the rest of her people who were with her on the boat and the trauma of the whole tragedy were too much for all of them.
They were finally airlifted to Honiara for medical treatment where she was discharged two days later.
She returned from the hospital for final check before travelling home that night on the boat that was carrying home the body of late Dalcinia who died on their hand at sea.
Solomons Today got up with her at her Aunty’s residence at Mbokonavera.
As she brought her mind to relive what had happened, you could hear it in her voice the great sadness this tragedy had caused her, her family and community.
But she wanted to tell her story to remember her relatives who lost their lives in this tragedy.
“Before we left our house at home for the boat that Monday morning, my husband cried as we bid farewell those at our house.
Then at the boats before we boarded, our catechist took us in prayer and he also cried.
Whether or not these were omens of what was to come, no one knows and paid any attention nor said anything.
On our way to the boat I also asked my husband I wanted to be with him on the same boat.
But my husband said we must follow the list and that list separated us into different boats.” Philomena said.
she said the two boats set out between 5/6 am on Monday morning with the bigger boat setting out first and headed out to sea.
“Our boat followed soon after with 22 people onboard, a generator, two big speakers, bags of rice and dishes of cooked food.
The sea was calm at first, but as we traveled for a while and moving further into the open sea, the boat began rocking and jumping on the waves.
I looked back towards shore and I could still see the shoreline of home clearly.” Philomena continued.
She said when they met their first wave and the boat jumped, the first thought that came into her mind was a hint of fear and she wanted to ask the skipper to turn back drop her at home.
“But we were already out in the open sea so I suppressed my own fear and stayed positive. We were telling stories, jokes, contemplating the activities ahead and enjoying ourselves.
As our boat ploughed through the waves further and further towards Guadalcanal, the sea began rougher, swells bigger and higher.
Sea water was now splashing into the boat so Ana Maunitee and I began bailing out the water that was getting into the boat.
That time our other boat was further ahead as we could see them through and on the swells.
We continued to steam ahead all the while we were continuously bailing out the water that kept splattering into the boat.” She continued.
She said she glanced back but Malaita’s shoreline an it was now thin on the horizon when their other boat waited for them to catch up.
Philomena said when they caught up, the two boats steamed ahead together for a while then they took off ahead of them again.
“Once again they waited for us but this time they were signalling us to transfer across to our boat two of their people.
So we got to them and two other girls Gelinda and Natasha Kanarihu transferred into our boat in the middle of the sea.” She said.
Philomena said soon after that transfer, the other boat left them and did not wait for them.
She said she glanced towards home and Malaita island had already disappeared from the horizon at that time, but Guadalcanal mountains and its coastline can be seen in the other direction.
“I know we’re in the middle of the ocean but towards the Guadalcanal side.” She said.
Soon after we slowed to re-fill and it was at that time that the first wave got into the boat.
There were lot of water in the boat and we could not bail it out quickly.
Then the second wave broke directly into the boat and that was it.
I only heard our skipper Titus shouted ‘Jesus Christ’ as he jumped overboard. We all followed suite and jumped into the raging sea.
There was a lot of confusing, chaos, and panic. We the women and girls were all crying.
The only thing I jumped with was my small white plastic biscuit container where I stored my personal belongings.
While in the sea with all the chaos, panic and crying all around, the phone in my plastic container rang. I’m sure they were our other boat checking on us.
The phone was in the bucket and I was resting my chin on it to stay afloat.
I told them and they shouted at me to go and give the phone to Titus to answer it.
Titus took the container and climbed onto the tip of the boat which is still floating at that time to answer the phone.
I held on to a timber with Ezekiel Maúasi.
But as fate would have it the moment he said hello a wave came and snapped the phone and the entire content of my container into the sea and gone was our only hope for anyone from the outside world knowing what happened to us.
All the young boys were angry with him saying there was no need to say ‘hello’ but should have shout ‘we sunk’.
I asked them to return my container and that’s the container I used to stay afloat.
Alot of people do not have anything to float with so our other skipper Hiuton poured out the petrol from the fuel tanks so that some can use the containers to stay afloat.
Unfortunately he poured the petrol close to us and it was burning us. It had already burned some of the girls that is why we have to swim from the fuel.
They were shouting to us but we must swim away from the fuel.
My brother in-law called to me to go with Osiabu and her group
Yes, I’m going with them because I fear the burning fuel.
I called back as I find my way join Osiabu and her group.
That was where we separated into groups.
All the men and women remained with the boat while our group swam out.” She said.
The group that first swam out of the rest fearing the fuel consisted of seven in total including, Mary, Kanarihu, Gelinda, Osiabu, Dalcinia, Florence and Philomena.
“Then another two boys Jimmy and Ezekiel Maúasi caught up with us taking our group to nine.” She said.
Philomena said they kept together but at the time Dalcinia was already struggling for her life.
“Petrol had burned her too so she was now struggling.” She said.
“Aunty Osiabu called to us and we all came to her. We all held her (Dalcinia) in our arms when she left us.” Philomena said.
Philomena said it was now late afternoon and they could see islands but it was also very difficult becasue the wind was strong with the current and rough sea.
“Aunty Osiabu tied her daughter Dalcinia’s body to her body and she was crying and telling me and Maúasi to swim to shore and tell people to come for us and take her girl to safety.” She said.
She said it was already late evening on Wednesday and they have been at sea for hours now but they must do something and follow Aunty Osiabu’s wish.
It was here that they decided to separate again with five of including, Ezekiel, Mary, Kanarihu, Gelinda and Philomena swimming towards shore and hoping to find help.
“We left Aunty Osiabu, her daughter, Leotina Puahia and Jimmy together and swam out towards shore.” Philomena said.
“The five of us left towards shore to find help but shortly after that night came (Wednesday night.) and we only found strong wind, heavy storm and darkness.” she recalled.
She said during the early part of the evening their other group was still closed by as they were still shouting to each other. But as the night wore on, they lost touch completely.
Philomena said she first saw a shark when she first swam out to join her Aunty Osiabu’s group.
“Then when sister Dalcinia died on our hands I saw the shark again and told Aunty Osiabu that there was a shark close by.
But Aunty Osiabu said to me: “We must put Mary mother of Jesus in front of us my girl.”
Throughout the night we could hear dolphins grinding their teeth under and around us.
They would play and splash the sea around us.
Whenever fear tried to overpower us, we would group together and Mary would lead us in prayer.
Then our fear would go away and we would forget the danger and the situation we were in.
We floated on and we were even surprised that dawn of another day (Thursday) appeared over our home to the east.
As dawn broke, hunger, thirst, fear and the trauma was now taking the toll on us and we were not thinking normal.
Our sister Gelinda was the worst as she was now acting strange. She was telling us she would swim with us underwater. She wanted to leave us and we must allow her to leave.
We all didn’t know how to deal with her so the three of us all told her to honour her wish. She left us that morning.
It was now Thursday morning and we could still see white sandy beach on the horizon towards Marau. We could also see buildings on the coast as they reflected in the morning sun. That gave us renewed hope.
We were somehow feeling positive and hopeful. Only three of us – Mary, Kanarihu and myself
The girls were even contemplating how we would soon be on shore cooking for us.
Mary asked me if she can borrow $100.00 from me so she could buy rice for us.
And Kanarihu said she would borrow $20.00 from me to buy noddle with our rice.
That renewed hope gave us strength and we began swimming again for shore towards the sandy beach. However, Every time we tried to swim towards shore, each time we would find ourselves at the same spot.
Then morning became mid-morning – then turned into midday and into afternoon.
We were getting weaker and we were now silent.
Hope and survival was now moving slowly away from us just like the day slowly moving into night.
But my mind and spirit was still strong and I was thinking of a conversation we had earlier in the night when Mary asked each of us what was the first thing that crossed our mind when we first sunk.
“What was the first thing that came into your mind when we our boat capsized?” Mary asked me.
“I thought of my Father.” I said.
“How about you?” Mary questioned Kanarihu.
“The first thought that came to me was all of us family would die in this tragedy.” Kanarihu replied.
Mary said her first thought was of her mother who was in Honiara and her grand-parents who were at home.
We were now very weak and barely new anything.
I’m barely aware that we were being rescued and being carried into the boat.
When I woke up, I’m on a bed at Marau clinic.