Viewing Lava Safely
Common Sense is Not Enough!
February 28: Note the update following the fourth
paragraph regarding the cause of death of the two hikers.
Lava entering the sea along Kilauea's shoreline draws people to
Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. They want to watch new land
form and experience the remarkable interaction of lava and water.
Beautiful and stunning, this interplay can be viewed safely
from a distance but is dangerous to anyone who ventures too
near a place where lava enters water. Unstable benches of land
build outward from the sea cliff and collapse frequently into
the ocean, triggering dangerous explosions and sending hot waves
on shore. During moderate or high seas, waves often throw
scalding-hot water far across the low bench.
If you intend to view lava entering the ocean in
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, information presented in a
new USGS-NPS fact sheet can help prevent injury and save your
A brand new fact sheet prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and the
National Park Service helps visitors understand this dramatic
and unpredictable activity. Visitors can
find themselves in danger if they lack knowledge of the landscape
along the shoreline and the processes that form it, or if they choose to
ignore that knowledge.
One of these two situations may have led to the deaths of
two people on November 3, 2000. According to a press release from
the National Park Service, two hikers (a 41-year-old woman from Volcano and
a 42-year-old man from Washington, DC) were found dead on November
5, above the sea cliff about 200 m from where lava was entering the
ocean. They had severe burns as well as cuts and abrasions on their hands
The Park Service is investigating the circumstances surrounding the
incident, and autopsies have been conducted. A Park Service press
release reports that the autopsies have "ruled out death by
violence or trauma." It will be some time before the coroner issues
a final report.
When the cause has been determined and the Park Service issues its final
report, this page will be updated.
Update: Hawai`i Volcanoes
National Park yesterday received the autopsy report for the two
fatalities. According to the Park's press release, "the medical
examiner determined that the immediate cause of both deaths was
'Environmental Exposure'. In the opinion of the medical examiner...the
two 'died as a result of pulmonary edema caused by inhalation of steam
sustained when exposed to a steam plume.'" The press release quotes
the Park Superintendent, "There has, and there might always be
speculation as to the circumstances that preceded their death, and the
truth is we will never ever really know."
This report makes the following scenario seem all the more reasonable.
In the meantime, a possible scenario is that the two people
were on the bench and were burned by, and possibly inhaled,
scalding-hot water or acid-laced steam. Clothing was not
burned sufficiently to indicate that either victim fell
into molten lava. There is no evidence of any other hot material
in the area except for hot water and steam, which are found
only on or immediately adjacent to the bench, not on the sea
cliff above the bench. Hydrochloric acid is present in hot
steam on the bench, potentially in high concentration.
Over the years there has been considerable and ongoing
publicity about the dangers of an entry bench. Two people
have previously died on a bench, one during a collapse and
another after falling while attempting to climb onto the bench.
Neither body was recovered. Despite these fatalities, numerous
written and forceful oral warnings by the Park Service, signs
and posters in the field, information on this web site, and
weekly pleas in our Volcano Watch column, a few visitors persist
in risking their lives.
We don't know for certain if the latest two victims were on the
bench when they received their fatal injuries. But we use this terrible
tragedy to once again remind all prospective visitors to the lava entry.
STAY OFF THE BENCH.
For information about the potentially dangerous activity where
lava enters the sea, see the following online sources, the first of
which is the new USGS-NPS fact sheet: