Experienced lava tour guide remembered as gregarious, full of life

  • Sean King. Photo by John Tarson.
  • Sean King takes a picture of a lava flow. Photo by John Tarson.

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 tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

  1. volcanovillage February 3, 2018 11:24 am

    rest in peace .. . you lived your life doing what you loved.
    None of us can hope for more.
    Aloha and Fare thee well.

  2. Leigh Hilbert February 3, 2018 4:39 pm

    I was both really sorry and a bit shaken to hear of the death of Sean King and the trauma to some of his tour group. For all of those of us that do hike to the lava action as guides, geologist or photographers, we find this tragedy all the more disturbing because we can totally picture the situation as it unfolded for Sean and his group; witnessing the rain showers sweeping in rapidly onto recently crusted but super-hot new lava flow fields – producing blinding acrid steam. In the darkness of that early hour, all the more distressing.

    Another danger from a lava steam whiteout: Bo’s story –
    Many people have been a caught in the rain out on the hot lava, but often it goes unreported.

    One such close call happened to my friend Bo in 2011. He described to me just how he got caught this way while guiding a lava tour that same year. He said it happened at the end of the tour, just after sunset, while finishing with watching some breakouts. They were on the coastal flats west of Kalapana Gardens a couple miles out with eight guests when the rain came suddenly and created a whiteout of steam and sulphur dioxide fumes that engulfed them. (The rain turns the sulphur fumes into something like sulphuric acid — not good to breathe — need a respirator and it burns the eyes & skin)… Bo told me he was able to call the group together but that he was instantly lost. Bo wandered through the dark fuming lavascape with his tour group blindingly following him closely as he tried to led the them to safety; out and away from the hazardous steam.

    Even tho he did get the group out of the steam, it was a very dark moonless night and he’d become very disorientated, leading them off in the wrong direction and across some very jagged sections of lava fields with large fissures. On that journey some of his clients fell and suffered some contusions. Rain obscured any landscapes or distant house lights. His, and most of the other people’s, flashlight batteries went dead, leaving only one fading dim light to lead the group in the blackness on blackness… yet Bo somehow, after miles of hiking blindly, found the coastline and navigated along it east back to where they started in Kalapana Gardens– arriving at around 1:30 in the morning, five and a half hours since that whiteout had struck them.

    — (Bo died near Leilani in a motorcycle accident in 2012).

    The active ocean entry lava delta benches are the most dangerous by far, for a myriad of reasons, including toxic steam. Most experienced lava walkers do take very good precautions, but surprising lava events can happen, such as this sad tragedy that took Sean’s life last Thursday.

    Leigh Hilbert

  3. critiq February 4, 2018 1:04 am

    when I went to Las Vegas Toyota Nationals, I did not know about the toxic fumes that emit when the pit crews are prepping the cars to race…..my first experience with nitrous oxide….omg! I think I almost fell over and ma-ke.

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