Tuvalu News

MOTUFOUA FIRE TRAGEDY - THE STORY FROM TUVALU


by Marica Seluka

This story first appeared in the March 2000 TPB Newsletter of the Tuvalu Philatelic Bureau. Marica and the Bureau have kindly given Tuvalu Online permission to reproduce it here.

Eighteen beautiful maidens and a kindly matron... who was to know that they would die horrifying deaths in an inferno that would stun the nation and render everyone immobile with disbelief and grief. Long after that fateful night of March 9th the eighteen survivors would hear those agonizing wails as their friends, sisters, cousins or relatives, desperate and frightened out of their wits, screamed as they were engulfed in flames. One cannot even begin to fathom the pain and horror they must have gone through. They were so badly burnt that they could not be identified. Their ages ranged from 14 to 17; the matron was in her early forties.

A survivor who lost her elder sister in the fire was alarmed when she could not find her sister outside. Earlier on when the fire broke out, she had reached for her elder sister in the top bunk and on finding that she was not there, she assumed her sister was already outside. Little did she know that her sister was trapped inside. She recalled managing to grab their bibles. One fell and she didnít she look back to find out whose it was or to pick it up. When she got outside, she realised that the one she was still carrying was her own. In the confusion outside, apart from taking it for granted that her sister had made it, she did not realise her sister was not one of the survivors. All eyes were glued in horror to the rapidly spreading flames engulfing their dormitory. Moments later as she went around looking for her sister, she was appalled to find out her sister had not made it. Helpless, she collapsed sobbing uncontrollably, clutching her bible and crying out for her sister.

One of the victims was seen close to the exit when she heard her best friend call her name; she went back to look for her. It is believed that they were the two victims found embracing each other. One of them was identified by her wrist watch. The House Prefect of the dormitory was also reported to have wandered around in the blazing dormitory to look for her cousin. Both perished. Also among the dead were two sisters. They have always been very close to each other. Their local parish remember them dearly and miss them sorely as they have always been very active in Sunday School and church activities; one of their favourite chores was to pick fresh flowers to decorate the pulpit. Their parents are inconsolable.

The Matron who had a chance to get out opted to stay and help the girls (who were trapped) open the other door which was locked. The girls were too scared

to make a dash for the door that was open because it would mean dashing through the fire. The flames had not reached the locked door but the fire spread so rapidly that the girls and the matron perished before they could open it. When they were found, they were lying in a pile next to what used to be the door; the matron on the top with her arms outstretched as though to embrace every single one of the girls.

The girl whose candle started the fire, also opted to stay and help. Both she and one of the survivors had been heading for the exit when she turned back. Only God knows the turmoil must have been going through in her final moments.

The fire was believed to have started when the unfortunate 16-year old fell asleep while doing last minute clandestine studies (after lights-out) using candles. It was reported that when she was attempting to extinguish the fire, the flames must have reached the electric bulb which caused the fire to spread rapidly inside the dormitory. Her bed was a top bunk right underneath an electric bulb.

Many questions have arisen following this accident. First of all where were the fire extinguishers and were there any other means of fire safety in the dormitory? Well, there were no fire extinguishers, nor were there smoke detectors. Fire drills are unheard of (at least for a long time now). The window security bars not only kept boys out but also kept the girls locked in. When the fire broke out, there was panic everywhere and even the matron was not trained for situations as those. Her natural instinct and common sense were not enough. She is survived by two sons (ages 14 and 15). No attempts were made to extinguish the fire. The fire was also spreading to the neighbouring pastor's house and dormitory which were quickly doused. However, Toaripi dormitory which was totally engulfed by the fire, was reported to have been left burning until the early hours of the morning when the fire was dying out; the boys of Motufoua helped in dousing what was left of the flames. Although it was officially reported that the watchman on duty that night opened the door from which all the survivors exited, the survivors said that it was actually the sheer determination of two of the survivors of Toaripi Girls that eventually got the door opened. They kept kicking the locked door which refused to open. Finally, one of the two girls, a pastor's daughter, gave a mighty push and the door new open. She was the first one to get out and no one was outside when they managed to open the door. Only as they were running towards the falekaupule (meeting hall), did they see the watchman running to- wards them.

Within several minutes after having gotten out, the whole dormitory was ablaze and no one else could get out. It was only later when they were in the school's falekaupule (meeting hall) that she noticed she was carrying something and that it was her bible. Before running out, both girls yelled out to let the others know that they had managed to open the door. In the memorial service held last Saturday, 11 March 2000, the distraught mother of the House Prefect was barely audible as she struggled to complete her eulogy to her little angel. Her anguish was plain to see on her face, in her stance and gestures, and it caused many to break down in tears as they felt and shared the grief of a mother in her tragic loss. In such a small country as Tuvalu, the communities are very close-knit with very strong family ties. Religion plays a significant role, the major church being the Tuvalu Church which stemmed out of the London Missionary Society. It is difficult to find anyone in Tuvalu who is not related or connected to any one of the victims. Relatives, community members and church members have been very helpful and supportive to the grieving families.

The Prime Minister, Speaker to Parliament and the Leader of Opposition attended the funeral of the victims. None of the parents on the capital were allowed to go to Motufoua (which is on the island of Vaitupu) on the patrol boat that took the official delegation Officials claimed the scene of the incident was too heartbreaking and it was still too early to al low close relatives to visit the site. This has caused so much criticism, especially from grieving families. Yesterday, the Tuvalu Media Corporation (who run the sole newspaper on the island, plus the radio broadcasting as well as the television station) was stopped from the Prime Minister's office after having interviewed only five of the survivors. Meanwhile, condolences keep pouring in from all over the world and many countries and organizations have offered assistance.



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