Toowoomba siblings escape Vanuata cyclone disaster zone
SIBLINGS Scott and Emma Handley are grateful to be safely home after their Vanuatu vacation turned into a cyclone survival mission.
Scott, 21, and Emma, 22, yesterday recounted taking shelter in a hotel lobby while Cyclone Pam's 340kmh winds destroyed the city of Port Vila around them.
Their parents Ian and Christine Handley had endured sleepless nights at their Southbrook home, desperately awaiting news of their children's welfare.
The siblings had been enjoying their stay at Iririki island resort in Port Vila as news of the approaching tropical cyclone unfolded about Tuesday last week.
Constantly changing predictions of how they would be affected prompted most people to stay.
"Each day it would change," Scott said.
"It didn't get serious until Friday."
The pair had been evacuated to the Melanesian Hotel, deemed to be the safest, on Thursday morning.
Indications of the impending disaster began showing on Friday afternoon.
Wind and rain intensified into the evening.
Emma decided they should move from their rooms with sliding glass doors down to the boarded-up lobby.
It was an idea shared initially by a few other guests.
"But then it started to grow, rapidly," Scott said.
They were able to keep in touch with their parents using the hotel's wi-fi internet until the power went out about 11.30pm.
By that stage, wind was roaring through the hotel and debris could be heard crashing into things outside.
They likened the sound to a jet engine.
"For Emma, it wasn't good, but it was quite an eye opener for me," Scott said.
The carpenter helped the hotel's maintenance crews fix a broken door as well as move other guests from rooms to the lobby.
"The joint next to us got ripped apart and all of its roof went past us."
Emma tried to remain calm by playing cards.
Guests, including Scott, slept on couch cushions in the lobby lit by tea lights.
Emma did not sleep.
"Every now and then I would wake up to the ceiling dropping," Scott said.
They made it through the night and went outside to see the destruction the next day.
"It was flat," Emma said.
"There was nothing left."
Meanwhile, their parents had also endured a night glued to their television screen desperate for news.
"We kept trying on emergency numbers," Mr Handley said.
"We couldn't get any response."
It wasn't until Saturday night that they had confirmation through an emotional Face Time call that their children were uninjured.
Mr Handley said until then, he had always thought of Facebook as being "crap".
"But when I saw we could talk to them and face them on that screen, the technology is mind-blowing to me," Mr Handley said.
Emma and Scott said they were very lucky to have been at a hotel that kept serving meals in the days after the devastation.
They were amazed by many examples of Vanuatu residents' selfless and caring nature.
"One of the ladies... her whole family had been killed and she was there making us breakfast," Emma said.
They got in touch with the Australian High Commission on Sunday night and registered to be on a military flight leaving Port Vila on Monday.
Scott said people had remained positive, but most of the Australians were anxious to leave the island.
He said the bus ride to the airport showed more devastation.
"All of the villages were just rubble."
They waited at the airport from Monday morning until their C-17 transport aircraft took off about 5pm.
Cancelled commercial flights had driven up demand for seats for other stranded tourists.
Mr and Mrs Handley had been waiting at Brisbane International Airport for most of the day until their children touched down about 7.30pm Monday.
"It was a relief. It was emotional. It was just wonderful," Mrs Handley said.
"We are just so blessed to have them home."
Scott said he kissed the tarmac after landing.
"I wasn't the only one, that's for sure," he said.
He said he hoped to return to Vanuatu to support the people who had been so kind to them.