Firefighter Recalls Winston Ordeal
Recalls Winston Ordeal
Just across the road from the National Fire Authority station in Rakiraki town is a line of banks, supermarkets and shops that sell electrical equipment and clothes. A team of 15 firefighters is stationed there and they are quite used to seeing people walk back and forth from the market and into the shops. One of the firefighters is 34-year-old Uraia Sevutia from the village of Vatukacevaceva in the highlands of Ra. Sevutia had just finished a 24-hour shift and was about to head home when the MaiLife team dropped in unexpectedly to seek permission from the Chief Fire Officer to ask some of the men to share their experiences of Cyclone Winston. Rakiraki Station Chief Officer Isikeli Tamanisau called Sevutia back into the office to relive his ordeal. “I remember being at home after my 24-hour shift on Saturday, 20 February 2016 when I got a call to return to work to be on standby because of the strong wind warning,” Sevutia said. “I had advised my wife and two nieces at home that they were to move to higher ground if flooding got worse and told them I had to go back to work.” In times like these, the importance of the job comes first for firefighters and the safety of their own families second. “I arrived at the station when the flood waters were rising very fast and by 2pm the whole town was flooded up to our knees.” Sevutia said people had a late reaction to the strong wind warning given through the media or perhaps just didn’t expect Cyclone Winston to be so destructive, so some people were still around town. “At 6pm it grew dark really fast while the water level kept on rising, along with the strong winds. I was at the station when I heard people screaming for help from across the road. “They were residents and business people who lived on the top floor of the shops. They were calling out for help because the wind had smashed the windows and all their belongings were wet. Sevutia and his crew grabbed their ladders and helped the people down to safety. “Those we rescued and others who were stranded in town
took shelter at the fire station, which was also flooded.” A power pole fell over and destroyed part of the station, so Sevutia was on the verge of abandoning his workplace and moving those under his care to higher ground. “But then I thought otherwise because my workmates were also out there rescuing people and they would eventually be bringing them back to the station,” he said. “I have been working for the National Fire Authority for the past eight years and my experience during Tropical Cyclone Winston is one I will never forget.” Sevutia did not return home until five days after the cyclone, to find that his home was partially damaged with the roof blown off, but his wife and two nieces were safe and sound. “I didn’t care about the house or what was inside, all I cared about going home that day was seeing my wife and two nieces safe and well because I hadn’t spoken to them since I left for work that dreadful Saturday,” he said. Rakiraki Chief Officer Tamanisau has 17 years of service up his sleeve, but had never seen anything like Winston. “I had encountered Cyclone Kina in the early 1990s and I thought that was the worst, but Cyclone Winston was a different story altogether,” he said. He was stranded at his home on that dreadful day. Bravely he swam the Naqoro flats so he could reach the station and command his men to stand firm and do their duty to the best of their ability. “We couldn’t drive the trucks so we grabbed the ropes and whatever we could and just went out there,” he said. Some eight people died that day and others were severely injured. “My men were hosing away the blood from all the severe injuries sustained by those we rescued, and of those who died while helping to clean up at the hospital.” “Rakiraki was upside down.” Chief Tamanisau told MaiLife he wanted to commend his men for their bravery and perseverance and for working so well together as a unit.
Rakiraki Fire Station chief fire officer Mr Isikeli Tamanisau (second from right) with the rest of his men on shift when Mailife team visited Rakiraki Town.