Pacific Partnership Departs Tonga

Posted by Thomas E. Weinz
July 30, 2009
Navy Helicopter in Tonga

About the Author: Tom Weinz is the dedicated Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09)."Synergy" is a word that is often touted, but seldom realized. PP09's final days in Tonga, however, were memorably synergistic. On July 24, much of the community of Faleloa gathered at the newly refurbished primary school for brief speeches, graceful Tongan dances performed by the school children, and a shared meal. Since most of the people of the area have never been near a helicopter, we flew one of USNS Byrd’s EH-96 Pumas for everyone to enjoy. All the children lined up to climb into the copter, and many pictures were taken of child “pilots.” That evening, Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele hosted a dinner for an eclectic gathering of sixty: Tongan officials, the PP09 leadership, U.S. Peace Corps volunteer translators and PP09 representatives from different sites, specialties and countries. Typically, the evening ended with music by the Pacific Fleet Band, and joyous dancing.

The grand finale, a true Tongan feast, took place on Saturday, July 25. The day opened with Prime Minister Sevele and his party being welcomed to the Byrd for a tour. Since Byrd’s bridge sits nearly ten stories above the surface of the water, the Tongan officials enjoyed a commanding view of the several islands in the vicinity. An official ribbon cutting took place in the afternoon at Hihifo primary school, followed by an array of food such as few of us had ever experienced. Since Tongans from every part of the island (two islands actually, joined by a narrow causeway) came to express their support and appreciation, it seemed an enormous gathering for this small town. I wished we were making a documentary (which was discussed at one point) in order to show this warm farewell in greater perspective.

Currently, we are half way to the French colony of New Caledonia, three and a half days west of Tonga. Noumea, the capital city, offers good airline connections, and 17 PP09 volunteers will change places by leaving the Byrd to fly home, their replacements arriving by air to board the Byrd for the rest of the mission. And all of us intend to enjoy some relaxation and some wonderful French cuisine.

Read Tom Weinz's previous or next entry.



California, USA
July 30, 2009

Eileen in California writes:

It is so good to hear how wll PP'09 is recieved in Tonga. This type of visit helps build diplomacy in the PINs. Please give my regards to Scott and Jeff the Medical Team leaders!

New Mexico, USA
August 6, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Tom, You may be aware of this news item already, but just in case you're not, I figured you and the crew would want to know.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Best Regards,


"About 30 people remain missing after a ferry sank off the Pacific island nation of Tonga.

The ferry, carrying at least 86 people, sank about 86km (54 miles) north-east of the capital, Nuku'alofa, as it travelled to outlying islands.

Two people, including one Briton, are confirmed to have died and the search for survivors is continuing overnight.

Fifty-three people were rescued after the Princess Ashika sent a Mayday call about 2300 local time.

The dead British man has been named by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as Dan MacMillan, 48, who had been living in New Zealand.

The FCO said Mr MacMillan's family had been informed and were being offered consular assistance.

It is not yet clear why the ferry sank but there are suggestions that cargo in its hold may have been dislodged, destabilising the vessel.

Tongan officials said at least 86 passengers and crew were on the vessel when it sank.

'Empty lifeboats'

A survivor, Siaosi Lavaka, said only men appeared to have survived, as the accident happened in the middle of the night as women and children slept on the lower decks.

"No women or children made it," Mr Lavaka told news website Matangi Tonga after he arrived at Ha'afeva.

There were nine lifeboats and Mr Lavaka said seven were filled with men. Another lifeboat was empty, and a ninth drifted away, he said.

Speaking at a South Pacific leaders' summit in Cairns, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said there had been "considerable loss of life".

"Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those that have been affected by this great tragedy," he said.

New Zealand maritime officials picked up a Mayday call from the inter-island ferry and launched a rescue mission involving a Royal New Zealand Airforce plane.

People had no choice but to use it because there's no other boat

Pesi Fonua

Four vessels, including a Tongan Navy vessel, were also helping with the search, and a fifth vessel was making its way to the area.

"You have to be very methodical and search every square inch," said Ross Henderson of New Zealand Maritime Rescue.

"It is a time-consuming process, so you know we just work our way through that and we remain hopeful of recovering people as soon as we can."

Mike Roberts of the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre (NZRCC) said it was difficult to know when to stop searching until the authorities could confirm how many people were missing.

But conditions in the area were good for searching and the water temperature remained around 25C, meaning anyone in the sea had a good chance of survival, said New Zealand officials."

-BBC World News, Aug. 6 2009


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