Volunteer firefighter severely hurt falling into underground hotspot comes home

  • Volunteer firefighter Lizzy Stabo is welcomed home after spending nearly eight weeks in the burn unit at Straub Medical Center. Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today

  • Volunteer firefighter Lizzy Stabo is accomanied back to the Big Island by her volunteer fire Captain Ron Ebert after spending nearly eight weeks in the burn unit at Straub Medical Center. Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today

  • Volunteer firefighter Lizzy Stabo’s flight into Kona International Airport is greeted with a “water lei” Monda after she spent nearly eight weeks in the burn unit at Straub Medical Center. Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today

  • Volunteer firefighter Lizzy Stabo is welcomed home after spending nearly eight weeks in the burn unit at Straub Medical Center. Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today

  • Courtesy photo Volunteer Fire Captain John Bertsch welcomes Lizzy Stabo home after spending nearly eight weeks in the burn unit at Straub Medical Center.

Volunteer firefighter Lizzy Stabo returned to the Big Island Monday evening after spending nearly eight weeks in an Oahu burn unit following an accident suffered while fighting a long-burning underground fire in Ka‘u.

Stabo’s ordeal started on her birthday, Sept. 3. As she was finishing up work that day at Sustainable Bioresources, she said she got the call to respond to a brush fire in Ka‘u. As a 10-year volunteer firefighter out of Naalehu, she left her job as well as plans for a birthday celebration, and met up with her captain at the station before the two headed out to yet another flare-up of a fire that had been burning underground for five months at Honu‘apo.

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“It was really no different than any other brush fire,” she recalled Tuesday after arriving home Monday at Kona International Airport to a water salute, lei and outpouring of support from fellow firefighters and the community. “The difference being it was underground. We were mopping up and everything was looking pretty good. We noticed a little flare-up and the captain on duty asked if I could help him.”

Stabo said Hawaii Fire Department Capt. Kaaina Keawe was about 5 feet behind her as they were pulling the hose toward the flare-up. As they neared the flames, she fell waist-deep into a burning hole.

“It was like a trapdoor I stepped on. There was no rhyme, no reason, nothing there to tell you there was a problem. As soon as I hit that spot, I went straight down. I was trapped. It was like quicksand,” she said. “I couldn’t move. I screamed. Thank God for the captain behind me. I was probably in there 40 seconds or so when he pulled me out.”

Stabo said Keawe put her on his back and carried her back to the road to an awaiting ambulance. She was quickly transported to Ka‘u Hospital and then flown to Honolulu for care at Straub Medical Center.

“I don’t remember anything after that for about three or four days,” she said

Stabo suffered third-degree burns from her knee down on her right leg, as well as to her buttocks, and second-degree burns on her left leg.

She praised the burn unit at Straub for the care she received.

“The support was amazing. It was more like family,” she said. “When I left it was very bittersweet. I was scared because I was in such good hands, but I did end up having two surgeries and ended up with a bacterial infection.”

She said Tuesday she was about 95% healed.

“It’s a miracle to me,” she said.

Volunteer Fire Capt. John Bertsch described Stabo as tough, “I mean real tough.”

“Tougher than any superhero in any movies,” he said. “It’s impossible to understand unless you’ve accidentally grabbed a hot pan with your bare hand or ventured too close to the barbecue grill. The pain you feel isn’t numbed by any amount of ice. Now multiply that pain by 1,000. Firefighter Stabo fell chest deep into a hidden ‘imu,’ no amount of ice in the world could correct; third-degree burns permanently altering 40% of her lower extremity.”

Bertsch said the September incident was an unfortunate accident that will forever impact Stabo, the first responders there with her and the way the fire department fights these types of fires in the future.

“Our hearts sank when we heard the news. There was nothing anyone could do. Now it was all up to Lizzy and the acute burn care center at Straub on Oahu,” he said.

By Monday, Stabo had recovered enough to come home to the Big Island. Her volunteer Capt. Ron Ebert accompanied her on the flight home from Honolulu.

She said they were getting ready to land when the pilot announced a special treat, a water lei to honor her.

“I saw this and just started bawling,” she said. “I could see the guys up there waving, some with their hand over their heart. We pull up and I see all these firefighters everywhere. I was probably in shock.”

After deplaning, Stabo was greeted by more firefighters, receiving lei and good wishes.

“There wasn’t a dry eye at the homecoming when she was wheeled off the Hawaiian Airlines plane,” recalled Bertsch.

Stabo shared the same sentiment Tuesday, “there were a lot of tears during that few minutes there.”

Stabo was then loaded in the deputy fire chief’s vehicle and escorted by a handful of firetrucks to the Regency at Hualalai where she will be staying for next two months while recuperating and undergoing physical therapy.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said.

A Go Fund Me account set up under “Help Lizzy Recover” has raised over $20,000. While Stabo’s medical expenses will be covered under workman’s compensation, her daughter has set up the page to help with living expenses while the volunteer firefighter is unable to work her job.

“For now, I’m taking it one day at a time,” Stabo said.

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Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd did not provide comment as of press-time Tuesday, however, in September he told Big Island newspapers “She’s an amazing person to volunteer, always a pleasure to work with.”

Public lands north of the estuary at Honu‘apo were closed indefinitely by the county on Oct. 8 due to the ongoing fires, which had resulted in four injuries, three civilians and Stabo. Whittington Beach Park and areas south of the Honuapo Estuary remain open.

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