Tragedy at Sea
As related to “Awake!” correspondent in Papua New Guinea
WE SET off from Gasmata, New Britain, around 11 o’clock on Wednesday, March 9. The weather was delightful. A gentle breeze billowed the sail of our outrigger canoe and steadily moved us along. For added speed, we paddled.
On our left, the coast was fringed with dark-green mangroves for a good part of the journey. These were intermittently broken by coastal villages and small beaches every so often along the way. Waves lapped at their white sands, and lines of coconut palms served as their backdrop.
Some three to five miles (5 to 8 kilometers) farther inland, the jungle-clad mountains in this part of the 300-mile- (485-kilometer-) long island, New Britain, rose abruptly to as high as 5,000 feet (1,525 meters). How majestic they looked!
Now and then, our canoe passed over colorful beds of coral where tropical fish could be seen. We were moving along fairly close to the coast. Here the sea was calm. From time to time, we caught sight of small reefs farther out to sea, these being marked by rippling white lines—the breakers rising and casting off their load of foam at quick intervals. Our sitting in the canoe and surveying all this peacefulness and grandeur caused a deep sense of satisfaction to well up within us observers. Truly, a beautiful setting!
Little did we know that in a few hours’ time this serene sight would change. We would find ourselves in a boiling sea with huge waves being whipped up by a cyclonic wind!
Purpose of the Trip
The purpose of the trip was to attend an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses about 30 miles (50 kilometers) up the coast at Umisa. We were five in all, two full-time ministers in special service, Jack Nelulu and William Nahilo, an elderly man named Deia, his wife Kurkur and their six-year-old adopted daughter. Some of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the small congregation at Umisa were looking after Deia’s 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. So Deia and Kurkur had an added reason for going—to see the other two children again.
Trips like this are common among us coastal dwellers of New Britain. We were not doing anything out of the ordinary by sailing an outrigger canoe up the coast. All our people travel in this manner. And what a spectacle the canoes are with their white sails fully extended as they skip across the waves! Our area abounds with fish and other sea life. As we sailed along, it was fascinating to see the various types of marine life. The antics of the porpoises as they followed the canoes provided comedy and variety for us.
Struck by a Terrific Wind
Late in the afternoon, we came to the end of the reef along which we had been sailing parallel. Ahead of us, not far from the main island of New Britain, we could see a small island called Atui. We decided that we would make the crossing. Only a light wind was blowing.
Suddenly, at about six o’clock, when we were about halfway across this stretch of open sea, still a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from Atui, we were struck by a terrific wind. Quickly it churned up the sea. Water started pouring into the canoe and we made frantic efforts to bail it out. Could the mast and sail withstand the lashing wind? If they did, we knew that we would make it to safety on the small island. But this was not to be.
The wind was too strong. It blew with great force down from the mountains. Under the pressure, the mast broke, leaving us at the mercy of the wind. We paddled harder. Oh, how we pulled on those paddles! But we were powerless to direct the course of the canoe toward Atui. We were blown seaward, out past the island. Even then we thought that if the canoe stayed together we would be able to find our way back again after the wind abated.
Farther and farther out we were driven. The sea grew rougher. Now the question was, Would the canoe stay together? Stresses on every beam grew greater. Then, around seven o’clock, our canoe broke up, it being unable to withstand the pounding anymore. It split from bow to stern, the wind blowing the lighter half away. Quickly we realized that it was hopeless trying to salvage anything from the canoe, although William still hung on to his bag.
Without losing a moment, Jack ripped the remainder of the canoe apart, throwing planks to William, Deia and his wife, while yelling frantically: “Now we can swim. Whoever reaches the shore first can tell our brothers in the congregation what has happened and they can come and find us.”
One Reaches Safety
William was then separated from the others and could no longer be seen in the dark. He began to swim toward Atui Island, hoping his bearings were right. In the meantime, Deia, Kurkur and Jack, with the little girl clinging to his shoulders, decided that it might be better to swim for the reef, hoping that they could stand on it until help came.
“As I swam I thought of Jehovah God and I wasn’t afraid,” William said later. He did not feel any cramp in his arms and legs and he did not think of drowning. On and on he swam, but still no land. Then, he recalls: “About nine o’clock the moon came up. I could see the lights of Fullerborn [a plantation] and its island, and I swam toward it. I reached the island about 11 o’clock. By then my body was numb and I couldn’t feel anything.” William just lay there on the beach until he felt stronger and his vision returned to normal. The sea and the wind had blurred his eyes so that he could not see properly.
When he felt his strength return, he got up and took his bag, which he had hung onto all the time he was in the water. He walked to a village on the island. When he reached it, only a few people were in their houses. (The rest, afraid of the strong winds, had paddled to a larger village on nearby New Britain.) The people took William in and gave him dry clothes and biscuits. Then he slept. At dawn, they took him over to the larger village on the big island. There he got a canoe and paddled to Umisa. He told his friends there what had happened, how the wind had destroyed the canoe and how Jack, the couple and the young girl had not yet reached shore. He feared that they were lost.
All were very sad. William told them that Jack did not have a plank like the rest of them. He was also carrying the little girl on his back. They concluded that he must have drowned, not having anything to help him. They thought the married couple must also be dead. All were very upset. But they comforted one another with the thought that if these were indeed dead, Jehovah would remember them and resurrect them.—John 6:40.
The Second Survivor Arrives
Throughout Thursday, some of the Witnesses there for the assembly searched for bodies in both directions along the beach. Others stayed and talked about what had happened. Then about 7:30 that evening, Jack arrived! He could hear some crying as he approached one of the houses. “Don’t cry—I’m here,” he said, after which he collapsed into sleep. Feeling that he needed food, they mashed some papaya and forced some of it into his mouth. At dawn on Friday, William and another person went to a nearby plantation where there was a two-way radio. Ships were alerted to search for the bodies of the other three. However, the sea was still too rough and captains were afraid to go out.
Jack Relates His Nightmare
Later, Jack awoke and related all that befell him. After losing sight of William, he, Deia and Deia’s wife called out to one another. They thought the canoe had broken up somewhere near the reef, so they tried to reach it. Deia and his wife both had planks from the canoe. As for Jack, he recalls: ‘I did not have anything to hold for flotation. I just swam, with the girl clinging to my shoulders.’
The waves were mountainous and were rushing toward them very fiercely. Up and down they bobbed in the foaming water. The wind added to the nightmare as it drove stinging saltwater spray into their faces and eyes. As waves suddenly came upon them, they could not help but gulp down some of the seawater.
Soon Jack was separated from Deia and his wife. As it was dark, they could not see one another. “I shouted out their names,” he said, “but they didn’t answer.” He then realized that he was not going to find the reef. So, with the child still holding on, he turned around and tried to swim toward the island that they had seen earlier. On and on he swam. About 10 o’clock the wind became exceedingly strong and the waves washed over them. Jack swam on for what seemed like a further 30 minutes, and when he felt for the young child, she was no longer there! One of the huge waves must have washed her off, and because his back was numb, he did not feel it.
Jack goes on: “When I realized that she was no longer on my back, I tried to find her.” For about 30 minutes he searched, but to no avail. So on and on he swam, not knowing where he was going. He just kept swimming until sunrise. Nearby was Atui Island. It was about eight o’clock when he staggered up the beach and collapsed in exhaustion. Unknown to William, this took place on the opposite side of the island.
Jack had been in the water for something like 13 hours, much of that time with the little girl on his back. Truly a marathon effort! How thankful he was to be alive! His still body lay on the shore all that morning. From time to time he would vomit up some of the seawater that he had swallowed. By midday he felt very weak. All he could do was lie there. He then fell asleep until about six o’clock that evening.
When he got up, he walked farther along the beach and found a small canoe. Normally a person could enjoy a walk there. Atui is not a very big island—only about 300 yards (275 meters) long and about half that wide, but it is very pretty, having a white-sand border all the way around it. Coconut and many other trees grow there in abundance, adding to its beauty. Nevertheless, this cyclonic wind had really battered this tiny island. Some say that these were some of the worst winds that they had ever experienced.
After finding the canoe, Jack slowly paddled across to where his friends were, about two miles’ distance. Little wonder that he collapsed again upon arrival!
All Was Not Lost
Jack and William have since recovered from their ordeal. A court sat to hear what happened and the judge decided it was an accident. Nevertheless, feelings among relatives of the dead reached a high point. On this island, as in other parts of Papua New Guinea, there is what is known as the “payback” custom. Some have threatened the lives of these two full-time ministers, although it had been beyond their power to save the other three.
This means that it is not safe at the present time for anyone to preach the good news of the Kingdom in the area of Gasmata where Deia came from, particularly in his village, Lukuklukuk. Sadly, people of other religions have tried to use this incident to stop the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Jack and William feel sure that those interested in the Bible here still want to hear its truths. It is hoped that, in due time, the way will be opened for these villages to be visited again.
Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize the truth of the Bible words concerning humankind: “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” (Eccl. 9:11) This accident could have involved any person who happened to be on the sea when the storm broke.
William, understanding this, pointed out that those in the canoe knew that similar things happened to the apostles. Paul was shipwrecked four times. Once he spent a whole night and a day in the deep. (Acts 27:39-44; 2 Cor. 11:25) So, when this accident occurred, all of them thought of the apostles, and this strengthened them. Jack and William thanked God that they survived. Yet they were very sad about what happened to Deia and Kurkur and their little girl.
If you are a relative of Deia, a person from his area or perhaps just someone interested in this account, rest assured that all is not lost. The death of the three was certainly a blow. No human can bring back the dead, as is shown in the case of King David’s son. (2 Sam. 12:23) But as Jack said: “We know that Jehovah God will resurrect the dead.” (Acts 24:15) He knows they are only sleeping in death and that God will remember them and awaken them from their sleep.—John 11:11-13.
May all relatives of these dear ones, Deia and Kurkur and daughter, along with all others who have experienced similar losses, draw comfort from the words of the apostle John at Revelation 20:13. There he describes what he saw take place in his vision of the resurrection: “And the sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them.” Think what that means! Their death at sea does not create any difficulty for the Almighty. In place of the despair that comes in times of tragedy or loss, the promises of the Scriptures fill us with the confident expectation that reunion with loved ones can be our lot if we exercise faith in God’s provision for salvation. This is the kind of reunion Jack and William await as they think of their dear friends lost in this tragedy at sea.