Sean King, who died Thursday morning while leading a tour group to the Kilauea lava flow, spent years hiking the area and knew it just about better than anyone, a friend told the Tribune-Herald.
“This was a guy who was experienced, who knew the terrain, who knew the conditions, who spent hours upon hours hiking out there,” said Denise Laitinen of Keaau. “If this could happen to him, then tourists or others really need to pay attention.”
King, who operated Hawaii Stargazing Adventures, collapsed and became unresponsive as the tour group, which included three others, became engulfed by a dense cloud of steam, caused by heavy rain showers on the flow field, said police Lt. Miles Chong.
Chong said the group found itself in trouble at about 4 a.m. when they were 2 miles mauka from the unpaved emergency road, which hikers use to access the flow.
“They really couldn’t see each other,” he said.
Chong said the rest of the group reported seeing King unconscious when there was a break in the steam, but it was unclear what time he collapsed.
According to police, the rest of the group hiked for several hours before they could find cell reception and call for help.
The Fire Department received the call at 8:15 a.m. One of its helicopters located King, 51, of Leilani Estates, on state land 950 feet from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. He was pronounced dead at Hilo Medical Center at 12:28 p.m.
John Tarson, who owns Epic Lava Tours, said King recently had started his tour company but also noted King was no novice on the flow field. He said King helped guide tours for his company since 2016.
As an avid photographer, King had been out to the lava many times before that.
“His ultimate goal for the last decade was to open up Hawaii Stargazing Adventures as his own business and move forward with it,” Tarson said.
Tarson and Laitinen described him as gregarious, full of life and always willing to help others.
“Sean was the pinnacle of smile — you’re alive,” Tarson said.
“He was a great human being … I just want people to know Sean King was what we all in our inner soul desire to be.”
Laitinen said King “staunchly loved and supported the Puna community.”
“There’s a small level of comfort knowing he truly lived life to the fullest, truly loved the community and died doing what he loved doing most,” she said.
Tarson said he has been in similar “whiteouts” but doesn’t suspect there was enough harmful gas in the cloud to cause King’s death alone. Other health issues could have been a factor, he said.
“It can be noxious, but still not to the point where you would go down,” Tarson said.
Chong said the other hikers — a 22-year-old woman from South Carolina, a 23-year-old man from New Jersey and a 22-year-old man from New York — reported having “respiratory discomfort” as a result of the steam cloud.
Tamar Elias, a geochemist at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said the steam can mix with sulfur dioxide from the lava and become acidic. She said that can irritate the respiratory system.
“When you mix (sulfur dioxide) with a heavy rainfall event, there are other potential things that can happen,” Elias said. “SO2 can convert to acid aerosol and is mixed with the moist plume, and then you have a wet acidic plume.”
She compared it to acid rain but noted she couldn’t speculate on how dangerous the steam was to the hikers.
Chong said police don’t suspect foul play and an autopsy will determine the cause of death.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.