Monday, October 05, 2009

Samoans prepare to bury tsunami victims

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AUDREY McAVOY and ROD McGUIRK
AP/LEONE, American Samoa

Taitasi Suapaia Fitiao is preparing for every parent's nightmare - burying her young child.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Vaijoresa, was ripped from her arms as an enormous wave from Tuesday's tsunami swept them up. As she floated away, out of reach, Vaijoresa pleaded, "Mom, please."
"I just can't believe that she's gone. At such a young age, you know? No parent should have to bury their child. It's supposed to be the other way around," Taitasi Fitiao said Saturday while sitting on her front porch next to a shrine to her daughter.
She said she just hopes her daughter didn't suffer too much pain.
It's difficult talking about it too, but Taitasi said she wants the world to know how beautiful Vaijoresa was.
Painful stories are heard with heart-rending frequency these days in American Samoa and neighboring Samoa, where tsunami waves roared ashore after an earthquake with a magnitude of up to 8.3 in the Pacific Ocean, killing at least 176 people.
The figure could rise with at least eight people on Samoa still missing. Also, an AP photographer on Saturday saw a body pulled from rubble at the devastated Samoan village of Lalomanu that apparently wasn't listed in the official death toll. Officials could not immediately be contacted.
A national prayer service for victims and survivors is scheduled for Sunday at the headquarters of the Congregational Christian Church of America Samoa, the largest religious denomination in the U.S. territory.
Territorial Gov. Togiola Tulafono said Saturday the service will bring the community together in the aftermath of the disaster.

In Samoa, scores of grieving people made a heartbreaking decision Saturday to sign over victims of the tsunami to the state for burial rather than take them back to ravaged villages for traditional funerals.
Government ministers told a congregation of 100 village and family leaders in a traditional wallless Samoan meeting house that the state would carry the costs of mass graves of up to 20 in a new cemetery in the capital Apia on Thursday following a memorial service in a nearby sports stadium.
The proposition was voluntary and the government will consider financial assistance to grieving relatives who elect to take their loved ones home.
Government minister Fiana Naomi said she expected about half of Samoa's 135 victims would be buried there.
Tears welled in her eyes as she told The Associated Press that the mass funeral was a radical departure from Samoan tradition.
But she said many of the village homes near where the relatives would traditionally be buried were gone and might not be replaced.
"It's very different, but it's very unusual circumstances," she said.
"The government sees the devastated areas, there are no buildings there, some villages might be relocated, people have lost everything and they can't hold ceremonies in the usual ways, she said.
"Usually they're very large communal ceremonies, but this is memorializing this event to serve as a constant reminder to us that we need to be prepared for natural disasters," she added.
Some leaders were concerned about the bodies remaining for so long in the city's overcrowded morgue.
Ben Taufua, who buried nine members of his family in the hills above Lalomanu on Wednesday and Thursday, said he was unhappy that some of them were inadequately chilled in a commercial cooler.
"Eight members of my family were found on the first day. When we went to pick up the bodies, they were worse than the bodies that were just found 48 hours later," he told AP with tears in his eyes. "It was very, very sad."
Faisimalo John Muaitau, a resident of Apia, said his family had agreed to bury their three victims in the new cemetery.
"It was't an easy decision," Muaitau said. "But we feel that what the government is doing is making a memorial for them and that is a good thing."
The village of Leone, the center of Christianity on American Samoa, was a bleak landscape of rubble. The beach meeting houses that had been the center of cultural rtuals and family meetings were destroyed. An overturned van was jammed into the roof of one beach house.
Leone residents estimate the tsunami destroyed about one-third of the village, which has a population of 3,000. The victims were mostly elderly or toddlers. Four villagers were killed while making crafs on the shore.
Friday will be the day that Taitai buries the youngest of her seven children, the active, playful first-grader who was rushing home from school with two cousins after the earthquake hit. Taitasi saw them on the way and grabbed Vaijoresa just as the wave hit.
The enormous wave, as high a 10 feet and moving some 30 mph according to witnesses, lifted them and carried them inland. Two large trucks sandwiched them, scraping the skin off her right hand and forcing her to lose her grip on her daughter.
Vaijoresa wasn't found until the next morning, even though dozens of villagers helped look.
"I went to search for her, I couldn't find her. Everybody in the village couldn't find her. I didn't know what to do. I just stand there, crying," said her father, Faataui Fitiao.
Taitasi said she's thankful they found her daughter so they can giver her a decent burial.
Vaijoresa's cousin, a girl, was also found dead. A boy cousin, also 6, is still missing.
The family will hold a joint service for the girls on Friday. Another memorial for the boy will be held at the bridge near where he was swept away.
"I'm hanging in there. I have to be strong for my other children and I believe she's in good hands with God," Taitasi said.
The burials come as officials shift their focus from rescuing lives to providing survivors with food, water and power, but they stressed it didn't mean they were giving up on the missing.
Electricity and water services were restored in about half of the affected villages in Samoa and American Samoa, and almost all of the territory was expected to have power from generators within three to five days, said Ken Tingman, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's federal coordinating officer.
But many survivors refused to return to their villages.
"They're scared; a lot of them have been psychologically affected by seeing their relations die in huge numbers," said Taule'alea Laavasa, chairman of the Samoan government's National Disaster Advisory Committee.
The death toll also includes 32 people in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.
Samoa's tourism industry, meanwhile, said it feared a "second tsunami" of vacation cancellations after the deadly waves wiped out some of the South Pacific country's most idyllic white-sand beaches and resorts.
Tourism is Samoa's largest industry, and travel industry representatives visiting the main island's wrecked southeast coast said Friday about one-quarter of the tourist accommodations had been destroyed.
Samoan tourist industry representatives said the damage on the southeast coastline of the main island of Upolu included four resorts and more than 20 family operations that rented simple traditional huts, known as fale.
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Picture caption:
A: Faataui Fitiao, left and his wife Taitasi Su'apaia Fitiao of Leone, American Samoa embrace a picture of their daughter Vaijoresa Uputaua Niuaveve Fitiao, 6, Saturday Oct. 3, 2009. Taitasi Su'apaia Fitiao was walking to her daughter's school to get her after the earthquake. She just managed to grab her daughter when they were swept away by the tsunami. Taitasi Su'apaia Fitiao survived but her daughter was killed. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
B: A man walks through a camp housing survivors at Vailoa village along Samoa's south east coast Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009, after a deadly tsunami rolled through several South Pacific island nations on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
C: A woman prays during church service at Holy Cross Catholic Church in the village of Leone in American Samoa, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. Ten people, including three children, were killed in the village when they were swept out to sea by a tsunami. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
D: Debris is scattered in front of Holy Cross Catholic Church in the village of Leone in American Samoa, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. Ten people, including three children, were killed in the village when they swept out to sea. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
E: People gather for church service at Holy Cross Catholic Church in the village of Leone in American Samoa, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. Ten people, including three children, were killed in the village when they were swept out to sea by a tsunami. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
F: Young girls play inside a tent at a camp housing survivors at Vailoa village along Samoa's south east coast Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009, after a deadly tsunami rolled through several South Pacific island nations on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)


McGuirk reported from Apia, Samoa. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia, and Jaymes Song and Greg Small in Honolulu and AP video journalist Haven Daley in Leone.


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