IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mountain of fire

Local residents overcome with awe of Kilauea’s power: NBC’s Fred Francis reports.

For 17 years now the Kilauea volcano has been dazzling visitors to Hawaii, while at the same time threatening to engulf the homes of those who get too close to its unstoppable laval flows. NBC’s Fred Francis got an upfront look at the volcano.

Nowhere in the world is there such a fiery spectacle.

“Kilauea is an incredible mountain,” said Todd Dressler, who lost a home to it.

Nowhere is there such a continuous show of nature — red, hot and raw.

“You’re overcome with this awesomeness of nature,” said Harry Kim, the civil defense director who has fought it for two decades.

Nowhere else do people live with violence and venerate it, too.

“That’s the home of Pele the fire goddess,” Piilani Kaawaloa, a native Hawaiian, said from one of the few homes left standing on its southeast slopes.

And nowhere is there a laboratory like this for all mankind to stare at and study.

“This thing just never seems to end,” said Donald Swanson, who runs the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano observatory on top of Kilauea.

For 17 years and four months Kilauea has been in a constant state of eruption. At times, like in the mid 1980s, it was shooting 2,000-foot fountains to the heavens. But most often it is spewing that same amount of lava inside the crater — pooled lava from a vent rip in the mountain called Puu Oo, where it sometimes pools like a lake of boiling rock and then shoots through underground tubes to the sea.


You can only get there by helicopter. Government geologist Christine Keliker accompanied NBC there.

Dropping onto the crust left by Kilauea, you could feel the heat coming through your boots.

It was not unlike walking up to a hole that looks into hell. That is how most describe a phenomenal collapse in the crust, called a skylight, which is a natural break in the roof of a lava tube.

The lava was moving at eight miles an hour from the vent up the mountain, through tubes, to an opening just a few feet below our boots.

It looked like a real river — it was really moving fast.

Each week, Keliker must take samples by dipping a sledgehammer head on a length of steel wire into the flow.

She could feel the lava taking the hammerhead with it. “It’s giving a nice tug,” she remarked.

It is a dicey job. Once a scientist fell in and barely survived, she said, but the science is worth the weekly risk. “We try to get a snapshot of what the lava looks like when it first reaches the earths surface… We want to know exactly what the chemical composition is… It can tell you where this magma has been, what path it has taken to get to us here.”

And it can also tell you if changes inside the mountain should be feared in the weeks ahead.

The gunmetal crust is puckered with steaming vents emitting a wispy stink of sulfuric fumes and often the top of the tubes cannot hold the volume of lava in its inexorable race to the sea. Keliker never tires of this marvel of nature. “And it’s coming through the tube system, to the ocean here and creating this new land that you see forming below us.”

From the air you can see the lava pouring out into the sea. It’s one of the world’s most exciting clashes — molten fire hitting a frothing sea, which in 17 years has meant over 500 new acres added to the island of Hawaii.

That’s enough to cover Manhattan with a 40-foot layer of hardened lava. And it never stops pushing up and out in one of nature’s greatest convulsions.

You must walk on it... carefully. As you do, you can feel the heat described by Keliker: “The temperature of the stuff is over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and what we’re feeling is maybe 500 degrees.”

Being that close to the main lava tube of Kilauea, less than a hundred feet, you can feel the tremendous heat, you can smell the gases and you can hear the molten lava cracking and spitting around you as the earth both creates and destroys itself. Catastrophe is a partner in nature’s greatest show.


Ten years ago Kilauea’s convulsions swallowed an entire community.

The lava spewing from the belly of the mountain took 181 homes and ravaged over $80 million in possessions.

It was not so much that people had to flee for their lives. The advance of the lava was brutally slow. They were ordered to walk away in tearful agony.

Yet Harry Kim, the civil defense director then and now, still had to plead with and order many of the people of the serene suburb of Kalapana to leave, explaining that its neighbor to the northwest — Kilauea — was taking over forever.

Then Mary and Todd Dressler waited for the last minute, sobbing and praying the flow would save their dream house and the home of their parents.

Today, the pain is just as vivid Mary Dressler said. “To see the power of what nature can do was unbelievable. And at one point, I saw a wall of lava that was 250-feet high right behind our custom-built home, an incredible wall behind us. So the power of it is just phenomenal. I mean there’s no stopping it.”

For 25 years most have called Harry Kim the Big Island’s only real hero. He stayed with every family, awaiting nature’s advance.

Kim helped everyone in Kilauea’s path with the agony and the awe of their loss — because he too was overcome by the mountain’s power. He said then and repeats now, “Who in the world, except for very few, have seen rock turn into liquid? And you’re overcome with this awesomeness of nature. Nothing of mankind will affect its direction or its outcome.”

One of the wonderments of this volcano is that it did spare a few. It passed a bus, which is buried where it was parked 10 years ago and then, in a miracle of the mountain, Piilani Kaawaloa’s house was not touched.

A native Hawaiian who says she can trace her family to the South Seas, she almost worships the fire goddess she said lives within the mountain. “We believe that with the respect that we have for Pele and our belief in her, that it was spared. We believe that the land provides for us. If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.”

Living with this volcano, explained Harry Kim, is part of a Hawaiian philosophy. “And that’s the words — living with the volcano. Co-existence with the volcano. And as strange as it may be, the people that lived here, you know, the very spot that we sit in, want to come back.”

Incredulous, I asked Kim why people would want to come back to rock and ash.

“That’s what you see. They see home. They don’t just see the black rock. What they see is the ocean a quarter of a mile away, the air that we breathe, the feeling of the wind, you know, the feeling of home. They can still look at the mountain. They can still look towards the sea.”

Even with Kilauea only seven miles away and the fact that it could come back next week — or tomorrow.

As dramatic punctuation of that, within a few hours of talking with Harry Kim, the phenomenal plumbing of Kilauea poured an enormous flow of lava within a mile of where we sat.

And scientists say this could continue, with other communities buried, for the next 100 years.