Big Island tour guide collapses, dies in noxious lava steam 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 steam clouds to rise from active lava flows.

Hawaii County police said 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 rain that caused what scientists and tour guides call a white-out.

"Such rain may react with sulfur gases that are emitted by a nearby lava rube, particularly from skylight or active flows," said Steve Brantley, deputy scientist-in-charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

"It creates a steam cloud that basically contains the whole area and can get so bad you can barely see your feet walking on the ground sometimes," said John Tarson, a lava tour guide with Epic Lava Tours.

Police said because of the fog and poor cell phone reception, the other members of the group -- who were unfamiliar with the area -- hiked for several hours before they could call for help.

King's body was found in the Kalapana viewing area, about 300 yards outside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundary. The three visitors on the tour 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 medics for non-life-threatening injuries.

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

"These can help to create an acid steam condition, but we don't really know what the concentration of that kind of acid mist or steam actually is from one location to the next," said Brantley.

The steam could also push up the surrounding air temperature to 100 degrees or higher. It could also reduce visibility in a space where you have to watch carefully where you step.

"There are ground cracks all over the place, and if you have thick fumes or steam where you can't even see your feet, then it makes it very difficult to walk indeed," said Brantley.

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

"We feel he will be permanently out there and helping us guide people safely on every hike from now on," said Tarson.

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