Moments in life are predominantly bittersweet, meaning there are always elements to be both happy and sad about. In 2004, 3 young children were stranded on an island for days after facing a traumatic accident in which they lost both of their parents and a younger brother. The blessings came when their strength and courage took them to a place where they would eventually be rescued.
A Day of Celebration Turned Tragedy.
Located off the coast of Australia is a chain of islands, totaling 274, called the Torres Strait. The Nona family was traveling from their home island of Badou to a nearby island called Thursday Island for a birthday party. Commonly called Torres Strait Commodores or TI Taxis, small boats are used to go from island to island. The 16-foot aluminum boat went down around 3 in the afternoon.
The outboard motor broke down and the family was unable to pull up the anchor. Water began pouring into the boat until it started to tip, and eventually sink. Hayley Nona, father to the family and Pastor of In the Assemblies of God church gathered his family and prayed. His wife Lisa None, clutching three-year-old Clarence tightly to her, told the three older children, 15-year-old Ellis, 11-year-old Bala, and 10-year-old Norita, to swim on. “Their mother, when the dinghy sank, … said to them, `You kids swim over to that rock area so that at least some of this family will be able to survive,”‘ Tamwoy told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Facing the Elements.
With heavy hearts, the 3 left their parents and little brother behind. They swam five miles to a rock not far from Papua New Guinea. The children made it to the rock around 7-8 that night. They stayed on that same rock for 4 days, until deciding to swim to a neighboring island called Matu, where Bala believed they would find a more plentiful food source.
Those first days, on the rock, the stranded children slept huddled in a crevice in the rock and had nothing to eat but Oysters. They journeyed through waters where sharks and crocodiles are known to reside. Bala has done a fair amount of traveling between the islands crayfishing so he knew the tides well and when the best time to swim was.
Just as Bala had predicted, the island they swam to had an abundance of the orange-red fruit known as Wongai and a coconut tree that would sustain them for another 3 days, until their uncle would find them and bring them back home safely. Ellis suffered some minor cuts on her feet from coral, but otherwise, the children were in considerably good condition when their uncle found them. All three were a little dehydrated and sunburnt but made a quick physical recovery.
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Survival Skills Saved Them.
The whole island has a family-like attitude toward one another and the story of what happened to these kids impacted their whole community. There were many elements working together in order to ensure the survival of the stranded children. Many of them stem from the wisdom given to them by elders in the community. From a young age, children are taught to go diving when the tide is low, and that you can get sustenance from coconuts(both from the meat and water inside).
They had a plan mapped out that would take them from island to island until they were able to finally swim back to their home island. At night the girls would listen to their brother’s ghost stories as a welcome distraction from the struggles they were facing. The stranded children believe the secret of their survival was staying together and skillfully navigating the wild.
Tragedy Met with Resolution.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokesman Ben Mitchell said, “We scoured the islands and rocky outcrops in and around the area covering several hundred square kilometers of land masses and open ocean and unfortunately we do not believe there are survivors.” Although these are not words the children wanted to hear, they did provide a sense of closure. The community held a memorial for Hayley, Lisa, and Clarence. It proved to be an emotional day for the children, who will now be living with their aunt Vickie Tamwoy.
In addition to being raised by their aunt, the community will come together in their traditional family-like beliefs and help raise the no longer stranded children. After this experience the community will likely continue to teach future generations about the importance of safety and wilderness skills in order to ensure survival against the elements, using this story as a learning tool.
These brave children faced a painful event and their emotional trauma may last a lifetime. Nonetheless, the strength and courage they exhibited are gentle reminders that with persistence and the right tools, we all can overcome anything.
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- “Kids Survive Castaway Ordeal.” CBS News. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
- “Oysters, plums and coconut milk: How children survived on a Desert Island.” The Guardian. David Fickling. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
- “How three children survived being stranded on a deserted island | 60 Minutes Australia.” Youtube. 60 Minutes Australia. December 6, 2021.