Feature

Navy Rescue Finale, Vanuavatu Sisters Tell: How We Survived Near-Death Experience Part 1

Only recently did they share with their loved ones of their 52-hour ordeal 25 years ago after the Fiji Sun published Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto’s five-part series ‘A Day That I Will Never Forget.’
21 May 2020 10:26
Navy Rescue Finale, Vanuavatu Sisters Tell: How We Survived Near-Death Experience Part 1
From left: Vilikesa Vasukiwai, Veresoni Basil, Lute Tubuna, Tevita Tabanimoli, Ravuravu Turaga, Ben Waqavou, Liliana Gade and RFNS Savenaca chief enginner Jovilisi Rokoiri on May 19, 2020, in Suva. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Trying to get the Vanuavatu sisters, Lute Tubuna, 42, and Liliana Gade, 39, to tell their story was not easy. The events of 25 years ago was a reminder of a past they regret. Their near-death experience is hard to comprehend. Yet they survived the elements nature threw at them in the open sea.

The sisters are indebted to the 19 crew members of the RFNS Kula who rescued them.

Today, the sisters are happily married with children and grandchildren. Only recently did they share with their loved ones of their 52-hour ordeal 25 years ago after the Fiji Sun published Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto’s five-part series ‘A Day That I Will Never Forget.’

In between tears and long moments of silence, the sisters tell their story:

“The reason we went to hide in the wooden punt was because of me,” Ms Tubuna uttered.

Her eight-month-old daughter was the cause of dispute at their Taira Village home.

“I conceived young and I was always getting the telling off from my mother. Strong words were said between us. She gave me a hiding – so we just went out to the punt to take some time out,” she said.

The sisters recalled that they left their home for the punt at around 1am.

“We did not expect to drift away. We planned to just stay there until my mother’s anger subsided and then go back home. We were both scared of our mother.”

The sisters have four brothers, and one sister. Their younger sister took her own life in 1998.

From the punt, the sisters saw their two older brothers looking for them.

“They couldn’t see us, so we decided to just hide in the punt. We did not move or row the punt. In fact, we did not even haul the anchor,” Ms Tubuna said.

Lute Tubuna could not hold back tears during morning tea at the Naval Base in Walu Bay, Suva, on May 19, 2020. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Lute Tubuna could not hold back tears during morning tea at the Naval Base in Walu Bay, Suva, on May 19, 2020. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Without realising it, the sisters soon found themselves outside the reef.

“The sea was getting rough. When we were outside the reef, then we realised we had drifted quite far from the shore and our attempts to go back was unsuccessful.

“As we drifted, we could see people in the village with their torches looking for us. We saw a fibreglass boat going up and down – we later learned it was our father looking for us after they noticed that the punt was missing.

“We were now helpless and could only watch from the punt. The wind and the currents were strong.”

Younger sister, Ms Gade said they were filled with regret when they found themselves outside the reef.

“No matter how hard we tried, the strong winds kept pushing us out,” she said.

The first night

Ms Tubuna will never forget their first night out in the open sea.

“On the first night as we faced the rain, the raging seas and strong currents – the rain kept flooding into the punt. I knew instantly that this was the end for us,” she said.

She paused for a moment wiping away tears.

“Physically I was weak because I was a breastfeeding my baby, but my younger sister kept reminding me to be strong.”

Ms Tukana wore a T-shirt, shorts and a ‘sulu’ while Ms Gade wore a pull-over, shorts and ‘sulu’.

Day one

The sisters saw land when they woke up.

“I think it was Moala,” Ms Tubuna said.

“We saw coconut trees and houses. We tried to row closer, but there was nothing in the punt to assist us. We were hoping to get the attention of villagers.

“We were feeling really happy when we saw land. But by midday, the current had taken us further out and the village was no longer in sight. We knew, we had drifted again.”

Ms Tubuna said the weather was now worse off.

To bail out water that was filling up the punt, Ms Gade used her ‘sulu’ to soak up the water and then squeeze it out into the sea. But it did not help much because water kept coming in.

“The anchor remained in the water. I think that’s what kept the punt balanced and the reason why we did not capsize. We kept thinking of our family, our parents and we kept praying.”

Their prayers intensified after they saw a shark, about the size of the punt, swimming beside them.

“I told Lute, if we capsize today, this shark is ready for us.”

Ms Tubuna totally lost all hope when she saw the shark.

“I thought we were going to die.”

Edited by Naisa Koroi

TOMORROW: Part 2

Feedback: rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

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