Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Lava shelf's collapse prompts new warnings

 •  Graphic: Danger lurks under lava flows

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Drawn by the allure of the Kilauea eruption, some intrepid sight-seers are venturing too close to unstable "lava benches," one of which collapsed Sunday, prompting new warnings about safe viewing.

Kilauea is impressive — and potentially deadly.

A visitor to Kilauea looks southwest along the western lava delta. At least 2,000 people a day have been visiting the lava flow in recent weeks.

National Park Service photos

No one was hurt in Sunday's collapse, but in the past 10 years at least four people have died after getting too close to coastal lava entries, and many more have been injured.

Professional photographer David Jordan of Volcano was at one of two points where lava was entering the sea at about 7:40 a.m. Sunday when he noticed an increase in the steam plume at the western entry about a quarter-mile away. He said he saw several explosions blast debris 100 feet into the air and saw a nearby nesting colony of noddies take flight in panic.

"I crossed over to the western entry to check things out and saw the ocean full of brown debris for about a quarter-mile offshore. All of a sudden a huge red crack appeared and peeled off into the ocean with more explosions," said Jordan, who makes daily treks to the eruption and said he always sees people entering unstable lava benches. "There was absolutely no warning, no noise, just a long red crack 100 feet long and then it peeled off."

At least 2,000 people a day have been traipsing to the lava flow in recent weeks, according to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park ranger Mardie Lane. To view surface and ocean flows, visitors must walk a half-mile along the end of Chain of Craters Road and three-quarters of a mile over lava fields.

Rangers have marked a trail, and a temporary visitor station is showing a video 24 hours a day on the dangers of collapsing lava benches, Lane said. Rangers also set a rope perimeter to designate potentially hazardous areas.

Lava safety tips

• Stay inside the National Park Service's rope perimeter.

• Do not go near the water and do not enter bench areas. Stay at least a quarter-mile inland.

• Move inland quickly if you hear cracking or booming sounds or other unusual noises.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Ranger Jacki Gillen, who has been working to make visitors safe at the eruption site, said the warnings are often ignored. She said she took an Australian film crew to the ocean entry site Saturday and watched as two people went beyond the perimeter rope and walked out to the tip of the bench.

"Had they been standing there Sunday, they would be toast," she said.

"Nobody wants to stop and be informed before they go out there. People drive down there and are mesmerized by the sight of the steam cloud. They get out of their car and they get tunnel vision and head right for the steam cloud. They just don't see anything else."

Kilauea has been erupting since January 1983, when lava began pouring from Pu'u 'O'o vent on the volcano's east rift zone. In April, a magma breakout dubbed the "banana flow" started advancing down the Pulama pali, eventually reaching the coastal flat May 2. It began spilling into the ocean May 30 or 31.

Sunday's bench collapse was small compared with previous events. In December 1996, a 27-acre bench fell into the sea without warning.

The flows have led to deaths and injuries:

  • In April 1993, a Kona photographer entered a closed area and disappeared when the half-acre lava shelf he was standing on collapsed into the sea. More than a dozen other people standing nearby were injured by flying debris.
  • In 1994, two people standing near the water's edge at an ocean entry site were caught off guard by a sudden wave and were severely scalded, requiring hospitalization.
  • In April 1998, a Laupahoehoe resident slid down the side of a coastal lava cone and dropped into the ocean. He is still missing and is presumed dead.

Learn more:

Lava flow photos by David Jordan can be seen at lavajunkie.com.


The hazards of coastal lava viewing aren't limited to bench collapses. In November 2000, the bodies of two hikers were found about 100 yards from an ocean entry. The two died of pulmonary edema from inhaling acid-laden steam.

Jordan, the photographer, was present when 13 acres of the Wilipe'a bench dropped into the ocean in 2002. "Those explosions were substantial. They went on for an hour and a half," he said.

He recalled seeing people on the edge of the bench just 10 minutes before that collapse.

"People think there's nothing to worry about; it's just rock and you can stand right out there and walk out to the very edge," he said.

Jordan, who said he is drawn to the volcano's dynamic environment, said lava-viewing can be safe "if you keep your wits about you."

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.

• • •