Island tour

Big Island tour guide collapses and dies in noxious lava vapor cloud

KALAPANA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) – Authorities are investigating the death of a Puna tour guide who collapsed in a lava field after heavy rain caused large clouds of steam to emerge from active lava flows.

Hawaii County Police say Sean King, 51, collapsed at 4 a.m. Thursday while leading three visitors on a hike to the lava flows.

The group was caught in the rain which caused what scientists and tour guides call a whiteout.

“Such rain can react with sulfur gases emitted from nearby lava rube, especially from the skylight or active flows,” said Steve Brantley, assistant scientist in charge at the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory.

“It creates a vapor cloud that basically contains the entire area and can get so bad you can barely see your feet walking on the ground at times,” said John Tarson, a lava tour guide with Epic Lava Tours.

Police said that due to fog and poor cellphone reception, the other members of the group – who were unfamiliar with the area – walked for several hours before they could call for help.

King’s body was found at the Kalapana Viewing Area, about 300 yards outside the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The three tour visitors were identified as 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. They were treated by doctors for non-life-threatening injuries.

An autopsy was ordered to determine the exact cause of King’s death. But scientists said heavy downpours can interact with noxious gases in molten rock.

“These can help create an acidic vapor condition, but we don’t really know what the concentration of this type of acidic vapor or acidic vapor is from location to location,” Brantley said.

The steam could also raise the ambient air temperature to 100 degrees or more. It could also reduce visibility in a space where you have to watch your footing carefully.

“There are cracks in the ground everywhere, and if you have thick smoke or steam where you can’t even see your feet, then it’s very difficult to walk,” Brantley said.

Meanwhile, Tarson said he and other guides and photographers remembered King with a lei, which they placed on the lava he liked to photograph.

“We think he’ll be around forever and helping us guide people safely on every ride from now on,” Tarson said.

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