"A volcanic mushroom plume rapidly built up and sprawled across the sky seconds after an extraordinary blast rumbled our ears to deaf," a Chinese employee working in Tonga told Xinhua on Tuesday via a satellite phone as he recalled the colossal volcanic eruption that hit the island nation three days earlier.
Zhao Yongming, an employee at China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, has been working in Tonga for five years. The 32-year-old, together with his 37 colleagues, was operating near the country's airport -- luckily on higher ground -- when the eruption occurred.
"The sky turned dark in minutes. Particles kept falling from the sky like hailstones, rattling on the window-panes and blocking our sight," said Zhao. "There was nothing we can do. We were panicking."
On Saturday, an undersea volcano -- about 65 km north of capital city Nuku'alofa on the north coast of Tonga's main island Tangotapu, where Zhao's project is located -- belched ash, gas and steam more than 20 km into the air and set off a tsunami that pummeled the country of around 100,000 people with 15-meter-high waves.
"Since the Chinese embassy has warned us of the eruption days earlier, we have moved the important supplies to safety in advance. The incident has done no harm to our lives or property so far," Zhao said.
"What's more, our company has taken into account the emergency situation, for example, a lockdown amid the pandemic, and equipped us with sufficient food and water in advance," he said. "Now we have supplies for our 38 employees to live on for three months, face masks and generators for emergency use."
After the eruption, which is believed to be the largest in the past three decades, authorities on Tuesday reported at least three deaths. The submarine internet cable has been knocked off, leaving the nation largely cut off from the rest of the world, with only domestic phone calls possible.
"Except for the little connection with the outside, our life remain largely the same," Zhao said. "And since the embassy has informed our families in China of our safety, we are now feeling calm and relieved."
However, problems of food shortages and volcanic ash are among his primary concerns.
The lingering ash cloud continued to shroud the country and has proven more difficult to clear than expected, which forced people to limit outdoor activities and wreaked havoc on crops and vegetables.
"Fresh food is increasingly hard to get, and the plight might linger if not worsen in the foreseeable future," he said.
Nevertheless, the ash cloud did not dim the glitter of kindness and mutual support.
"During our retreat to our base at a higher altitude shortly after the eruption, we could not see anything even with our high beams on. After we arrived, we found that we were joined by unexpected 'guests' -- four Tongans from two families," Zhao recalled.
"They found themselves at lost after escaping from the coastal area, as the volcanic ash engulfed the island. The lights of our vehicles lit up their way in the dark, so they joined our cars and followed us here," he said.
"We invited them to our simple dinner and provided them with water to clean the ash on their skin," Zhao said. "They left the next morning with gratitude, saying they were grateful for our kindness and help in that night of panic, fear and uncertainty."