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Despite the potential risk to human life, active volcanoes have become popular attractions for tourists and others interested in adventure recreation pursuits. One such example is the ongoing eruption of Kilauea Volcano and the Pu‘u O‘o Vent in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where tourists and other spectators regularly gather to hike to active lava flows and view lava flowing into the ocean. In November 2000, authorities at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park received a report of 2 dead bodies found near the ocean entry in an area of the park referred to as the Eruption Site. Both bodies (1 Caucasian male; 1 Caucasian female) were located approximately 91 m directly inland from the ocean entry and were located on the eastern side of active lava flows. The bodies were located approximately 12 m apart from each other. In addition, the male victim had a backpack that was found 6 m west of his body. An expert geologist at the scene with considerable experience in the park reported seeing no sign of volcanic spatter and no evidence of a recent explosion in the area.
The bodies were removed via a sling load attached to a Hawaii County rescue helicopter. Two days later autopsies of the victims were conducted by a medical examiner for the County of Honolulu. Dental records identified the victims as a 43-year-old male and a 42-year-old female. Examination of the female victim found no obvious burns on her clothing. However, her state of decomposition was extremely advanced for the estimated time of death (maximum 48 hours prior to body recovery) and in comparison to the male victim. According to the medical examiner, the female had perimortem first- and second-degree burns to her head, neck, shoulders, upper chest area, and to all limbs. She also had perimortem wounds to the head, face, and limbs that were superficial in nature. Examination of the male victim also found no obvious burns to his clothing. Moreover, abrasions and lacerations to his body were also perimortem and superficial in nature. However, there were very obvious perimortem first- and second-degree burns to his head, neck, limbs, and areas of his trunk.
During the autopsies, no evidence indicating that lightning or violence were factors in the deaths was found. The medical examiner did report, however, that the burns were consistent with those caused by a hot gas or vapor rather than contact with hot liquid, contact with a hot object, or radiant heat. This was based on the findings of undamaged clothing and the regions of the bodies that were burnt. For example, both victims sustained burns to areas that were unprotected or protected by a single layer of clothing. No burns were indicated or obvious where there were 3 layers of clothing. In areas where there were 2 layers of clothing there were some burns indicated and observed where the clothing may have been penetrated or tucked up. The final cause of death determined by the medical examiner was death as a result of pulmonary edema caused by inhalation of volcanic laze, sustained when the victims were exposed to the plume near the ocean entry.
This incident highlights a potential hazard when entering areas of volcanic activity. What makes this a case of interest, however, is that it was the first known incident of its nature in Hawaii and that it specifically highlights a potential global hazard present in locations where lava enters ocean waters. Conditions near the ocean entry typically involve exposure to volcanic laze, a dense hydrochloric acid (HCl) mist that is formed when hot lava enters the ocean.
This laze is often mistakenly referred to as a steam plume. Heat from the lava entering the ocean rapidly boils and vaporizes seawater, producing a large white plume. This plume contains a mixture of HCl and concentrated seawater that is a brine with a salinity about 2.3 times that of seawater and a pH of 1.5 to 2.0.
Hence, following the inhalation of the laze, the bodies of the victims were exposed to extreme heat and acidic conditions during the maximum 48 hours they were at the ocean entry.
In addition to the loss of life, the final cost of this incident included $3025 for aircraft assistance and $9507 for personnel costs. Volcanic hazards at the Eruption Site and in the vicinity of the ocean entry are not always recognized, and access to the area is not restricted. However, warning signs and safety messages should be strongly heeded by all visitors.
Health hazards from volcanic gases: a systematic literature review.