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Lava tour turns deadly: Guide leading hike in Kalapana area dies after noxious steam engulfs group

  • A tour guide died Thursday while viewing lava in lower Puna. Both county helicopters were reportedly dispatched to the scene, as were county fire paramedics and police.

    HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

Rain falling on a lava flow in the Kalapana lava viewing area Thursday morning caused a noxious steam cloud that overcame four people hiking on a guided tour, according to the Hawaii Fire Department.

All four were quickly surrounded by the cloud of noxious gas known as “laze,” a written statement said. Three managed to escape the worst effects of the caustic cloud, but the tour guide — identified by unofficial sources as Sean King, owner and manager of Hawaii Stargazing Adventures — was pronounced dead after being airlifted by a county helicopter to a waiting ambulance crew.

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Hawaii County Managing Director Wil Okabe said the victim collapsed in a “remote area.” The Fire Department release said it was the site of the former Royal Gardens subdivision, where all the homes were destroyed by lava from Kilauea volcano.

“He passed at the scene,” Okabe said.

The helicopter found the three tour customers who escaped the gas in a safe location. They sustained minor injuries but declined further medical attention.

The unresponsive tour guide was located in another location in the open lava field.

“We don’t believe there was any foul play,” Okabe said. He added there will be an autopsy.

The Fire Department received the alarm at 8:15 a.m., with the first unit arriving on scene at 9:01 a.m., according to the release.

Volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide are denser than air and can collect in low-lying areas. Breathing high quantities of such gases can cause unconsciousness and death in humans.

Okabe said the death occurred in an area where warning signs are posted. Signs around the lava viewing area warn about the dangers of breathing volcanic fumes, particularly if one has a history of respiratory or heart problems or if one is pregnant or elderly.

“Fumes can change at any time down there,” he said.

Okabe said mishaps often occur around the lava viewing area, but most are people falling while hiking or crashing bicycles.

Okabe told the Tribune-Herald he’s “pretty sure” the death occurred inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

HVNP Public Affairs Specialist Jessica Ferracane said the county and national park are working together to determine jurisdiction for the investigation.

“We’re waiting for data to come in and we have to wait on that, but according to the thermal imagery where the flows are right now, we speculate that happened outside the park,” Ferracane said late Thursday afternoon. “But we’re still waiting for the official data to come in.”

The Fire Department statement listed the owner of the property as “undetermined.”

Visitors in the area were largely unfazed by the incident.

“We’re not easily deterred,” said Colorado resident Brandy Straatman. “We’ve heard of accidents before, but it doesn’t worry us.”

Jonella and Stan Eisentrager of Nebraska said they would see the lava regardless of the incident. While they were shocked by the news, the couple expressed confidence they would remain safe.

Kawaihae resident Gerald Newell said the incident was unusual, but was likely a fluke.

“I’ve been here hundreds of times,” Newell said. “I know people do try to sneak past into dangerous areas, but as long as people follow guidelines and be smart about it, then I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”

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Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.