Tu’imala Moala (nee Fulivai) died in a house fire in Vava’u, Tonga, on November 8. Photo / Supplied
The death of a New Zealand-born woman in a house fire in Tonga has sparked further investigations into the circumstances surrounding the incident – after a pushback from her family, who are demanding answers.
Tu’imala Uinise Palauvava’u Pauline Moala (nee Fulivai) died in a fire at her home in Neiafu, on the island of Vava’u, in the early hours of Tuesday, November 8.
Emergency services and firefighters responded to the scene around 5am local time.
When her family in Auckland received the phone call that their sister had died in a house blaze, younger brother Dibor and his wife Hainoame Fulivai could not believe it.
“We both [reacted] like: ‘What? What?!’ My husband just said: ‘Call the police and see what our options are, because this doesn’t feel right’,” Hainoame Fulivai told the Herald.
Tongan Police posted a media release the next day saying based on a doctor’s report and evidence from witnesses, the 46-year-old victim died from smoke inhalation and “very severe burning”.
Local authorities said their investigations had concluded with a formal inquest at 10am the day after the fatal fire. It was chaired by the district officer of Neiafu and attended by a family member of the deceased, as well as members of the community, police said.
Their inquiries revealed Moala and her husband had gone to bed about midnight. They were on the third floor of the house when they were awakened by what was described as a loud cracking sound from downstairs, according to the police.
“When they opened their bedroom door, the flame had already engulfed the building, leaving them no way out but to tear down another door and climb to the rooftop,” the statement said.
“From the rooftop, they tried and jumped to the deck on the second floor. In trying to escape the extreme flames, the husband held his wife’s hand so that they could jump down to the ground, but she let go of his hand because she was too terrified to jump.”
Tongan Police went on to say Moala’s husband called for help before a neighbor arrived with a ladder. The ladder, however, was said to be too short.
“Both the husband and the male neighbor urged her to jump and they would catch her – but she refused as she was confused, panicked and terrified and in the end, the fire caught up with her,” Tongan Police said.
Local authorities reported the Kiwi-Tongan woman was laid to rest that day; before acknowledging that they were aware of talk on social media around the incident.
Live video footage of fatal fire captured by neighbors
“Tonga police is aware of misleading speculations being spread over social media and hereby asks members of the public to please respect the deceased and her family at their time of grief.
“The matter has been formally determined and concluded by the inquest.”
The Fulivai family in New Zealand has now made moves to look into the circumstances surrounding the fire themselves, having contacted the NZ Police directly and engaged a lawyer.
They are also seeking answers regarding the initial police investigation, which was wrapped up in just over 24 hours and their sister’s body was buried the day after.
“Our sister did not deserve to die this way – no one does,” the family says on its side Givealittle fundraising pagewhich has been started to help with legal costs.
“She must have her justice. This is the very least we can do now to honor her memory at this time.”
New Zealand Police are now working with Tongan authorities; who announced late last week that the investigation into the fire is now ongoing.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed that the NZ High Commission in Tonga is providing assistance to the victim’s family.
“Tonga Police confirms that a team of investigators from Tongatapu are currently in Vava’u conducting further investigations on the matter and are supporting the locally-based investigators in Vava’u.
“We are working closely with our counterparts from NZ Police that are currently part of the capacity development program working with Tonga Police.”
That announcement comes after a live stream video of the fire, captured by a neighbor, was posted online and has since gone viral on social media sites Facebook and TikTok.
The victim can be heard screaming and calling for help, in Tongan.
Fulivai said it was traumatising to see that footage, but acknowledged that it may help the Police with their investigations.
“We feel like we’re walking through that fire with her. She didn’t make it out – and none of us were there.”
Tongan Police Commissioner Shane McLennan called on members of the public to stop commenting about the case – particularly on social media.
“Investigations are ongoing and we are gathering all necessary information on the matter. We are grateful to those members of the public who have come forward and provided information, including video material.”
A woman of nobility and a second mum
Moala’s late father held a nobility title in Tonga and comes from a well-known family.
She was born in New Zealand and grew up here and in Tonga; living in different parts of Auckland over the years and attending St Mary’s College, where she was the deputy head girl, and the University of Auckland in later years.
She moved to Tonga a few years ago when she married after her mother died and remained a well-known figure in the local community, working as a radio personality.
Paying tribute to her sister-in-law, Fulivai described Moala – who did not have any children of her own – as a second mother to her own children; as well as her other nieces and nephews.
“She’s always loving to her brothers and their kids and Tu’imala’s one of those [people] who would go to any lengths when it comes to her nieces and nephews.
“That was her life.”