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Kilauea: The eruption of 1924

A series of images from the 1924 eruption of Kilauea told the story of lessons learned Tuesday night at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s visitor center.

Ben Gaddis, a volunteer for the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, used a series of black-and-white photographs and old newspaper clippings to entertain and educate attendees during an “After Dark in the Park” program as part of HVO’s 2014 Volcano Awareness Month.

Onlookers listened as Gaddis provided an in-depth overview of the events leading up to the Sunday, May 18, 1924, eruption that resulted in the death of one man and chaos among area residents.

In the dimly lit room, Gaddis started the tale by introducing key players: Thomas Jaggar, the scientist in charge of the observatory; Ruy Finch, who was left in charge while Jaggar was out of town during the eruptions; and Thomas Boles, who had been appointed as the first full-time superintendent of the park two years prior to the explosive incidents.

Gaddis said it all started in the spring of 1924, when multiple Kapoho residents reported unusual activity occurring near their homes. On April 21, Gaddis said one resident reported he “felt 88 distinct shocks at his house.”

“The next day, things were worse. A resident near a railroad quarry counted 238 shocks between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., when he gave up counting and went to bed,” Gaddis explained.

With Jaggar away, Finch and Boles were left to investigate. They headed to Kapoho on April 23 and discovered a crack on the side of the road that was 12 feet wide. Gaddis said the two stopped to eat lunch, and by the time they had finished eating, the gap had widened to 13-and-a-half feet.

But by April 24, the unusual activity had “tampered out.”

“Amazingly, the area affected by the earthquake was very restrictive,” Gaddis said. “ In the events at Kapoho, the only casualty was one cow that fell into a crack.”

Boles, who focused on enhancing tourism at the park, did not view the earthquake activity as a significant threat and tour groups were still allowed to visit the park despite the unusual activity.

His judgement would be called into question during a tour of Halema‘uma‘u on May 9.

“They were enveloped in swirls of sand for 40 minutes and the report that said these people were really astounded by the view is putting it modestly,” Gaddis said.

That evening, about 12 hours following the departure of the tour group, the first big explosions occurred around Halema‘uma‘u. The next morning, Finch found fragments of rock up to 100 pounds that had been blown 750 feet from the rim of the pit.

“The visitors had timed their visit well,” Gaddis joked.

After the explosion, Boles ordered his staff to build a rock barrier so no cars could get pass, but people were still allowed to walk to the rim of Halema‘uma‘u at their own risk. Rocks continued to be ejected over the next few days, and it would take a near-death experience on May 13 for Boles to rethink the park’s public access points.

A few days later on May 16, Gaddis said Boles was watching the eruption when the entire crater turned red.

“After a few seconds, flashes of lightning played back and forth. Five carloads of tourists were nearby and one described the thousands of lights that broke from the eruption cloud gave the appearance of skyrockets,” he said.

That evening, women and children were evacuated from Kilauea Military Camp and it was reported that the ash fell as far down as Glenwood.

Activity continued and Gaddis said on May 18, “All hell had broken loose.” Violent eruptions while visitors were in the park resulted in the death of one man and a scramble for survivors to make it to safety. The explosions also caused an electrical storm and produced so much hot rock that it gave the appearance of lava flow.

Following the day’s incidents, the Volcano House would be closed for the first time in “living memory.”

Gaddis reflected on what scientists and park managers learned from the “relatively modest eruption of Kilauea.”

“An event like this can and will happen again and any such eruption could be much bigger and could last much longer. If there were problems in 1924, imagine the chaos that such an eruption would cause today,” he said. “Lines of authorities need to be clear and the public needs to receive information from one reliable source,” he said. “Good planning is essential to the safety of everyone.”

Visit the HVO’s website at for more information about the 1924 eruptions and activities for Volcano Awareness month.

Email Megan Moseley at


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