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A Tongan man says he swam for more than 24 hours after a tsunami swept him out to sea

As Tonga comes back online following the eruption of its massive Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday, we're learning more about the toll it took on the environment and its people.

One survival story gaining attention around the world is that of Lisala Folau, a 57-year-old Tongan man who claims he swam for more than 24 hours after he was swept out to sea by the tsunami waves the eruption triggered.

Folau, a retired carpenter who lives on a small island called Atala — with a population of about 60 people — shared his story with Tongan media agency Broadcom Broadcasting. George Lavaka, whom The Guardian identified as a senior editor at the radio station, shared a translated transcript of Folau's interview on Facebook.

Folau said that he was painting his house on Saturday evening when he heard from his brother about the incoming tsunami and climbed up a tree to seek refuge. He and his niece climbed down during a lull, but were caught off guard by a massive wave — he estimates more than 6 meters, or nearly 20 feet high — and swept out to sea, at about 7 p.m. local time.

Folau told the broadcaster that he has mobility issues that affect his legs and prevent him from walking "properly." He could hear his son calling out to him from land, but didn't respond because he didn't want him to risk his safety by jumping in to try to rescue him.

"My thinking was if I answered him he would come and we would both suffer so I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming," he said. "It stayed with my mind if I can cling to a tree or anything and if anything happen and I lose my life, searchers may find me and my family can view my dead body."

Folau first reached ground on Toketoke Island. He said he saw a police boat heading back towards Atata around 7 a.m. and waved a rag at it as it passed by, but it did not stop for him.

From there Folau said he set off for the island of Polo'a, a journey that lasted from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. He then swam to Sopu, which is on the western edge of the capital, Nuku'alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu.

He said his mind was on his family during what Reuters describes as the 7.5-km (4.7-mile) swim to the main island. He worried about his niece, who had been carried away by the wave, and the illnesses his sister and youngest daughter are facing.

"All these were racing in my minds and what point was there that now I have survived and what about them," he said. "This drove me to get to Sopu."

Folau said he reached the shore at about 9 p.m. local time Sunday, some 26 hours after the wave first swept him to sea.

He recounted crawling from the beach to the end of a public road and finding a piece of timber to use as a walking stick as he sought help. A passing driver found him and, after a bit of questioning, connected him with his family.

It is not clear what happened to Folau's other family members, but the New Zealand news site Stuff reports that his daughter later recounted the experience and her gratitude in an emotional Facebook post.

Others are sharing reports of Folau's story on social media, hailing him as a "real-life Aquaman."

The so-called superhero sounded super humbled by the experience. He told Broadcom it was "so unexpected that I survived after being washed away, floating and surviving the dangers I just faced."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.