HONOLULU – A passenger on a tour boat that was struck by lava off Hawaii’s Big Island last week shielded his girlfriend and waited for death as searing debris came ripping through the catamaran’s roof.
“I remember getting hit with the lava in my back and just waiting for the heat,” Will Bryan, a 38-year-old paramedic who was on vacation in Hawaii told The Associated Press. “I just assumed that whatever hit me was lava and I was going to burn and die.”
His girlfriend, Erin Walsh, 31, was sitting next to him when lava rained down on them July 16. She said she was so traumatized she couldn’t be around a running clothes dryer because the sound reminded her of the cacophony of lava that struck the boat.
“It’s getting better each day, but I definitely feel like I’m kind of suffering from some PTSD,” she told the AP Monday by phone from Portland, where the couple lives. Walsh added she is still having trouble being alone in the dark.
The two were on a 49-passenger sight-seeing boat that brings people to see lava from Kilauea volcano entering the sea. The volcano, which has been active for decades, began its latest eruption on May 3 and has destroyed more than 700 homes since.
The volcano’s magnificent illuminations lived up to the tourists’ expectations, at least at the beginning. “Everybody oohed and awed,” Bryan said.
But that changed as the boat got closer. “You can hear the oohs and awes stopping. Everyone started to get nervous,” he recalled.
The vessel made several passes in front of the plume, getting closer each time. Bryan said “mob mentality” prevented him and others from speaking up about their fears of getting too close.
“This stuff was magical and exciting, and no one was saying a word,” he said.
Bryan was sitting on the side of the boat closest to the explosion when it happened and captured the event on video. The footage shows the lava blasting from the ocean and the sounds of rocks and debris pinging off the metal boat as people screamed.
Whenever hot lava enters much cooler ocean waters, there is the potential for these kinds of large explosions. The U.S. Geological Survey recommends people stay at least 300 yards away from any ocean entry.
When the blast happened, Bryan stood up and turned his back to the lava and shielded Walsh. The debris “pelted” his back, but only burned the top layers of his clothing, the lava never contacting his flesh. He did have burns on his foot and lacerations up and down his legs, and Walsh also had cuts and burns on her legs and arms. She also said debris got into her eyes.
“Every time (the lava) hit a person ... as it bounced off their skin or flesh, you could hear it,” Bryan said, describing the sound as a “soft thud.”
The smoke and debris engulfed the boat, Bryan said, and everything went black. Flashes of lightning were produced by the explosion and crackled around them.
“There was nowhere to hide on that boat, it’s so small, and it was coming from above us and it was coming from the side of us, there was nowhere to go,” he said of people scrambling for safety.
“You’re crawling over people, and you’re trying to get to the furthest side of the boat and you’re just hoping that you can get away fast enough,” Bryan said.
Seconds after the initial blast, the large chunk of molten rock crashed through the roof.
“You can see in my video , there’s like a flash of orange light and that’s when that rock went through the roof,” Bryan said. “I just remember worrying, ‘There’s going to be another one that’s going to hit us.’”
Then it stopped.
Minutes after the explosion the captain took a jacket and dragged the basketball-sized chunk of still glowing lava rock off the boat, Bryan said.
Bryan and a doctor stabilized a woman who suffered a fractured leg, the most serious injury of those aboard. The other 22 people injured were treated for minor burns and scrapes, including 12 who were treated at a hospital in Hilo.
The nearly two-hour boat ride back to the docks was painful, uncomfortable and silent, Bryan said. The woman with the broken leg was on the floor of the boat, and Bryan recalled hearing moans every time the vessel hit a wave.
Walsh was taking video and photos with her cellphone before the explosion. She doesn’t remember much after that, and even the images she took before the explosion are gone.
She took her phone in to be serviced when it wouldn’t work.
“They opened it up and they said it was melted on the inside,” she said.