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NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Aug. 22) - A freak tornado struck three vessels linked together, in a search and rescue mission in Ha'apai last Friday that nearly ended in tragedy for 35 crewmen on board.

After being hit by 40-50 knot winds, a rescue barge owned by the Tonga government was swamped and began to sink, starting to pull down two other boats chained to it, the "MV Hifofua" and the "Nai'a." In order to save the crews, the barge was cut loose and sank, while the five men on board the barge escaped in a dingy.

Today, from the safety of port in Nuku'alofa, Jonathan Smith, the captain of Fijian whale-watching vessel the "Nai'a" that was rescued by the barge after running aground on a Ha'apai reef on August 10, described the events as "pretty horrific."

He praised the Tongan rescue effort.

"The main thing was lives were not lost, although a couple of the guys broke their fingers and had scratches," he said.

Jonathan said that they were on their second whale-watching trip of the season to Ha'apai when they first got caught up in a storm while anchored at Luanamo Island, Ha'apai, on August 10.

"The weather was not anything that the weather forecast predicted," he said, describing the wind swelling to 15 knots and swinging them right around onto a reef, where the "Nai'a" stayed stuck until August 17.

A government boat the "MV Hifofua" went over with a barge to rescue the "Nai'a." After several attempts they finally managed to pull the "Nai'a" up and off the reef and began towing the boat, with both vessels chained to the barge that had gone in close to the reef to enable the rescue.

After surviving seven days on the reef, Captain Smith said that they thought everything was all over and done with, and they did not expect to get hit by another freak storm with 40-50 knots wind, "that came out of nowhere," early on Friday morning August 18, when the linked convoy was just past Hunga Island.

Johnathan said that they had to turn back towards Ha'apai because the barge that was towing them was taking on water, and to try and to save the five men who were on board the barge. "But as they turned around that didn’t help them either with the wind behind them.

"The barge was taking on so much water that it began to sink pulling "Nai'a" with it. Then Commander Lupeti Vi ordered from Nuku’alofa that we cut off the barge that was chained to both the "Hifofua" and the "Nai'a" so as to save the crew, and we did it and the barge sank - but it saved about 30 crew that were onboard both boats, and the five guys on board the barge also managed to get out safely on a dingy without a scratch," he said. "That was one thing we were very thankful of."

The "MV Hifofua" then continued to tow back the "Nai'a" and they got in safely to the Nuku’alofa harbour on Saturday night (August 19).

Jonathan praised the salvage crew who with the limited resources did a very good job. "They should be commended for all their efforts to save "Nai'a" and "Hifofua," because if they did not cut the barge loose both boats would have gone down with all crew on board and that would have been a big loss for everybody."

The "Nai'a" had on board 12 crew with 3-salvage crew and the "MV Hifofua" carried 15 crewmen, and five on the barge.

Jonathan said that the "Nai'a" had been whale watching in Ha’apai for eleven years now, and they come to Tonga every July bringing passengers from the US and other countries.

The 'Naia" will be towed back to Fiji by the "MV Hifofua" today, August 22, and will go on the slipway for repairs.

"What happened was an act of god because it was the weather and there was basically nothing one could do about it, but we are happy that everyone is alive", concluded the captain, who expected to return to Tonga in 2007.

August 23, 2006

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