PUNA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Mayor Harry Kim told Hawaii News Now on Tuesday that he didn't know the Coast Guard had reduced the safety zone for licensed lava tour boat operators — and that he never would have agreed to that.
This information comes after at least 23 people were hurt Monday morning after a littoral explosion near the Kapoho coast sent rock and molten lava shooting into the air and onto a boat named the 'Hot Spot,' which had 49 passengers and three crew members onboard.
Before the incident, lava boat tours were allowed as close as 50 to 100 meters.
Coast Guard officials have since altered the safety zone to 300 meters, and Kim says that the new distance parameters are much more reasonable.
"You need not to get any closer to that for a view point - yes, I do realize the pressure for people wanting to see or the desire — but you know we have to put an emphasis on people's safety," Kim told Hawaii News Now.
Big Island officials have also been looking for a safe place where lava-seekers can take pictures and view the lava.
The Mayor says several locations officials have identified as potential spots have either been inundated, or now no longer have a view because of how dynamic this eruption has been.
"We have been looking for a safe place. I cannot even find a marginally safe place on land that would accommodate the number of people that would want to come in, traffic control, the changing conditions - gas and wind conditions...and as soon as I find one, I guarantee — we want to open it up too," Kim said.
"I know that my responsibility is not only for residents safety, but economic reasons as well," Kim said.
There are conflicting reports as to how close the Lava Ocean Tours vessel that got hit by the lava bomb was to shore at the time of the explosion, and the boat's captain, Shane Turpin, denied a request for an interview when approached by Hawaii News Now on Saturday.
Turpin has been sued at least four times before by people who claimed they were injured on his tours, Hawaii News Now has learned.
One of the victims, a 23-year-old woman, suffered a shattered femur and was airlifted to Oahu after the accident. She has already undergone two surgeries, according to family members.
U.S. Coast Guard officials say initial reports indicate Turpin was about 200 meters away, but multiple eyewitnesses on board another lava tour boat – and several passengers Hawaii News Now has spoken to who were on board the boat that was damaged – believe they were closer than that.
"It was fully engulfed in the steam, so it was definitely a little bit too close," said Kenneth Fay, who witnessed the incident on a trailing lava tour boat.
Jeffrey Alfonso, Sr., is a local fisherman who says he sees Turpin running tours all the time. He describes Turpin as one of the most reckless captains he's seen on the water.
"Being a captain is only a piece of paper. Being respectful is something else," said Alonso. "I pass him on a daily basis, and they're way in there. And I see the explosions. They're closer on to shore than the explosions are high."
Passengers onboard Turpin's vessel have never before sued for injuries suffered by lava or during a lava explosion. Instead, all four of the lawsuits Hawaii News Now was able to find involved passengers who suffered injuries while riding in his boat who say he operated at excessive speeds and didn't pay attention to their complaints.
But Demian Barrios, a photographer and crew member who was on board the 'Hot Spot' on Monday when it was hit by lava, took to Instagram on Tuesday to describe Turpin as an admirable and skilled captain.
"Yes, accidents happen, and I want to make it abundantly clear that this could have happened to any of the lava boat tours," he wrote.
Barrios went on to compare the risk of lava boat tours as similar to going on safari to see a lion: "People know lions can potentially be dangerous, like the lava," he said. "First injury like this in 15 years of lava boats."
At this time, Turpin and Lava Ocean Tours still have a permit to operate, and the company was seen taking a tour out on Monday just hours after the lava explosion. The only difference now is that Coast Guard officials say everyone must stay outside of the 300 meter safety zone.