Navy Rescue Finale, Vanuavatu Sisters Tell: How We Survived Near-Death Experience- Final Chapter

This is the final chapter of the sisters’ 52-hour sea ordeal 25 years ago.
23 May 2020 12:57
Navy Rescue Finale, Vanuavatu Sisters Tell: How We Survived Near-Death Experience- Final Chapter
Lute Tubuna (left) and Liliana Gade (right), with Republic of Fiji Military Forces Commander, Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto (third from left) in Suva on May 19, 2020. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Day Three

The ship they saw the night before was nowhere in sight.

The waves just kept pushing them further and further away.

They were alone yet again – overwhelmed with despair and fear.

But the sound of an aircraft approaching brought renewed hope.

It was different from the aircraft they saw the day before.

Lute Tubuna said it came straight for them.

“It kept circling us and moved lower and lower.”

A frightened Liliana Gade hid under the sheltered part of the punt, at the bow.

“I could see white people looking at us from the aircraft windows.

“I told Lute, ‘This is a different plane’. I was really scared.”

Ms Tubuna said she was too weak to move and just lay motionless in the punt, submerged in water. I was hungry, cold and wet.”

After some time, the ‘white people’ signalled to the sisters to wait. With their eyes fixed on the aircraft, the sisters suddenly saw something fall into the sea.

“I thought they were dropping a bomb at us!” Ms Gade exclaimed.

The sea around the sisters suddenly turned fluorescent green. Just as fast as it had approached them, the aircraft quickly disappeared from sight. The aircraft was the French Navy Guardian, based in Noumea.

In his five-part series, ‘A Day I will Never Forget’, Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto, who was the Commanding Officer of the search and rescue vessel RFNS Kula, said the Guardian was a state-of-the-art surveillance aircraft with fantastic technology. He said it could detect from a distance above, a coconut bobbing around in the ocean.

The waves remained relentless. The shark was still visible.

After some time, the sisters saw both the ship they saw the night before and the aircraft approaching.

God had answered their prayers.

“Since the night we started drifting, I prayed and asked God, ‘Lord if there is a purpose for us in this world, You will save us.’ The sight of the ship and the plane confirmed in my heart that He had a plan for us.”

As the ship drew closer, Ms Gade noticed that the shark had disappeared.

“For the first time since Day One, the shark was no longer there, and we could feel the punt sinking lower into the sea. Looking back, I think the shark kept us safe – like a guardian.”

As water rushed into the punt, the sisters heard over a hailer a man telling them not to jump into the sea and not to be afraid.

“The only thing I remember was being thrown floaters to keep ourselves above water,” Ms Gade said.

“Lute was taken up first because she was so weak. The men who came to our rescue introduced themselves. One of them was Vodo. They quickly did what they had to do. They were also following instructions from the man on the hailer.”

Ms Tubuna recalls being hoisted up the ship like a bag of coconuts. But that did not matter. She was finally on dry ground.

“I knew, if I had stayed in the punt for one more night, I would have died from the cold,” she said.

Inside the Kula, the sisters were given some dry clothes and hot water to drink. They rested for a while before a gentleman knocked on their door. He introduced himself as Naupoto.

“He joked about taking us back to Vanuavatu if I wasn’t too sick.

“We arrived at the naval base in the late afternoon. An ambulance was waiting for us. I was admitted for three days. Liliana was by my side the whole time.”

Ms Tubuna has never returned to Vanuavatu.

She met her eight-month-old daughter whom she left behind in the village three years after the incident – in Suva.

She is now married to Ilai Natui of Lovelove Village, Bulileka, Labasa. They have six children.

Her younger sister, Ms Gade is married to Jone Ledua, a gardener. He hails from Ogea. They have nine children. Life has been tough for the sisters. But they know they were spared for something bigger than themselves. They are grateful to the 19 crew members of the RFNS Kula, the Vanua Air crew, the French Guardian aircraft crew and all those who played a role in their rescue.

The Vanuavatu sisters are indeed grateful.

Edited by Naisa Koroi

Feedback: rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

Also read: 

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

Navy Rescue Finale, Vanuavatu Sisters Tell: How We Survived Near-Death Experience Part 2

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