A ferry sank in Tonga a couple of nights ago...the night I arrived in Vava'u...claiming around 26 lives, mostly women and children.
I know the story has been in the news. Many people have sent me messages of concern (thank you) and news clippings. By now, most of the available information has gone out, so there's not much more to say about this tragedy, except perhaps to note that it could have been prevented, and never should have happened.
What the press releases and words on the news wires can't convey, however, is the degree to which Tonga as a whole, and especially Vava'u, has been affected.
Tonga is a small nation, with a population of 110,000 people or so. Everyone seems to know one another, or at least know someone else who knows someone you're talking about. There are perhaps only three or four degrees of separation among people here, rather than the more standard six.
As such, just about everyone here, me included, knows someone who's been affected by this misfortune.
Despite prevailing sunshine and clear skies for the past couple of days, there's been a dark cloud hanging over Vava'u. Many of the survivors, and most of the victims it seems, were from Vava'u.
Yesterday evening, my friends arranged for a minister to conduct a small memorial service at the Vava'u Yacht Club. The service was broadcast live via radio to all of Vava'u. Of the 100+ people gathered, most were non-Tongans. Some were visitors like me, others more permanent residents of Vava'u.
The weekly Friday-evening yacht races in the harbour were cancelled, and most everyone who would have participated ended up at the service.
As the minister spoke, the usual chaos of the venue settled into a respectful silence, some people listening to the minister's words, others seeking solace in their personal thoughts...perhaps contemplating their own close calls at sea.
I tried to imagine how it must have felt for the unfortunate women and children trapped in the hull of the ship as it went down, then stopped myself as I felt a surge of nausea. Some thoughts are better left un-thought.
The service wasn't long, concluding with two minutes of silence and a rendition of Amazing Grace, but the important thing is that it brought together a diverse group of people from all around the world, if but for a few minutes, to share a moment of silence, respect and support.
Some of the long-term residents and frequent visitors here have set up a fund to help the victims' families pay for funeral expenses, and many of the foreign-owned businesses are contributing their own funds as well as collecting donations for the cause.
Tonga is a deeply religious nation. I'm certain that churches will be filled to capacity this weekend, as communities gather for collective emotional release.
The one thing I see most clearly by being here, is that the facts and figures of this tragedy aren't what's important. It's the families and friends...those lost at sea, and those remaining to mourn them...who are the real story.