Tour boat passenger hurt in lava explosion: It ‘felt like I was being encased in lava’

From a hospital bed, woman hit by lava describes horrifying experience
Updated: Aug. 1, 2018 at 12:21 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jessica Tilton remembers the lava explosion and the suffocating blackness that surrounded the tour boat she was riding two weeks ago.

"I felt like I was just being encased in lava," she said.

Tilton was sitting next to the railing on the left side of the Lava Ocean Tours vessel as it traveled along the Big Island coastline, giving passengers an up-close view of lava from Kilauea entering the ocean.

The explosion sent a huge plume of dark smoke into the air. A lava bomb pierced the boat's roof several rows behind Tilton and screams from frightened passengers quickly filled the air.

She said she turned to shield her younger sister and felt a searing pain in her left thigh.

"I kept screaming, 'My leg!' because my leg hurt really bad. I remember the captain saying, 'Is anybody hurt?' My dad was yelling, 'My daughter is hurt!' she said, fighting back tears.

Her father, Rob, said a glowing lava rock about two feet in diameter shot through the side of the boat and struck his daughter.

"You can see in pictures on the side of the boat the dip in the railing where the rock hit that," he said. "It landed in her seat. I think it hit and pushed her aside. That's why she doesn't have burns on her."

Tilton, just 20 years old, endured a painful hour-long boat ride back to shore.

She's thankful doctors and an EMT were on board. They pulled her to the middle of the boat and surrounded her with life jackets to try to make her comfortable.

Surgeons at the Queen's Medical Center repaired her broken femur, fractured tibia and broken hip.

"They put a metal rod in, which I'll have for the rest of my life. My pelvis is broken in multiple spots," she said.

In total, 23 people were injured during the ride.

Lava Ocean Tours had a permit to take people within 165 feet of the coast line. But Jessica said she was worried boat captain Shane Turpin was taking them too close.

"To me it's right next to the lava, if not on top of it. That really scared me," she said.

"Of those that had permits, he was the only one remotely this close. The others were very concerned and would not have been in there." Honolulu attorney Rick Fried said.

Fried is representing the family and looking for other passengers who witnessed the incident.

Turpin told Hawaii News Now because of an investigation he can't comment about the incident, but he wishes Jessica a speedy recovery.

The Tilton's took the tour on the day before they were supposed to return to their home in Washington, Illinois.

Jessica's a senior at Bradley University.

She doesn't know how long she'll be hospitalized, undergoing physical and occupational therapy.

"I just keep thinking in my mind every day that I can get through this and I'll be able to go back to school eventually. You just got to go through the pain right now to get there," she said.

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