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‘I didn’t care if they cut my leg off or not’: Kilauea lava bomb survivor describes agony

The sheer force of the lava bomb was what Darryl Clinton remembered feeling first, more powerful than any waves he had ever encountered in the ocean surrounding Hawaii.

It knocked him backward on the third-floor lanai of his neighbor’s home on the eastern end of the Big Island, where most people had evacuated amid three weeks of heightened volcanic activity on Kilauea. Clinton and some others had stayed behind, maintaining a vigil to protect the neighborhood from a fissure that had opened up several hundred yards away.

For five days, they had taken turns hosing down area homes whenever molten rocks - flung from Fissure 17 - landed on them. For five days, Clinton had successfully avoided the projectiles.

On Friday, though, a piece of molten rock struck Clinton in the ankle as he was on the phone. The power of it pushed him off his feet and onto a couch that was promptly lit aflame.

"It was the most forceful impact I’ve ever had on my body in my life," Clinton told a crowd of reporters from his hospital bed Tuesday. "That was just incredibly powerful and hot. It burned."

When Clinton next looked down - as a nearby friend scrambled to wrap a tourniquet around his leg - all he saw was bone protruding from skin. His ankle dangled awkwardly, and blood spurted forth.

All he felt was searing, excruciating pain.

"I don’t know if I was in shock," Clinton said. "I just think about my daughters and knew I was up on that roof, and I was in really bad shape. . . . I knew I had to get out of there. I couldn’t pass out. We just had to get out of there."

Clinton became the first known person injured by Kilauea since its volcanic activity dramatically increased more than three weeks ago. Officials announced the incident with few details, identifying Clinton only as a homeowner on Noni Farms Road who had shattered his leg from his shin to his foot when lava spatter struck him.

They also used the announcement to warn that lava spatters "can weigh as much as a refrigerator, and even small pieces of spatter can kill."

Noni Farms Road is a residential road that lies to the east of the Leilani Estates neighborhood in Pahoa, where the majority of the volcanic activity has been focused.

To date, at least 23 fissures have formed along a northeast-southwest line in the rift zone, most in the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens neighborhoods. Lava emerging from the vents has destroyed dozens of homes.

Read More: Woman fatally struck while pushing stroller on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa

Living on the slopes of one of the world’s most active volcanoes meant it was hardly their first brush with lava, Clinton would later say.

The lava flows themselves were usually slow enough to be avoided, he said. It was the projectiles from the lava fountains they had to watch for, and they had learned to judge their arc as they sailed through the air, pushed by the wind.

"It’s almost like catching a football," Clinton told CNN, who interviewed him on Friday, before he was hit by a lava bomb. "But you don’t want to catch this football."

Hours later, he would be in the back of a truck, on his way to meet medics in agonizing pain. He was rushed to Hilo Medical Center, where he said physicians cleaned out his wound, removed tissue they could not save and, to his surprise, stabilized the leg he felt almost certain he would lose.

"I just wanted to live. I didn’t care if they cut my leg off or not," Clinton said Tuesday, according to KHON. "I just can’t believe it’s there."

The harrowing incident did little to dampen his awe of the volcano and its powers - or his desire to remain there. Clinton seemed in good spirits Tuesday, wiggling his toes and joking about how there would be less traffic when he returned home.

Witnessing the lava up close, injury notwithstanding, had been unforgettable, he said.

"It was incredible. It was just the event of a lifetime," Clinton said. "Every aspect of the lava was there, you know, the sounds, the sights, the flowing lava, the aa [a type of lava flow], the fissures. It was all happening at one time."

Kilauea’s latest eruptive episode has upended life on parts of the Big Island since April 30, when the floor of the Puu Oo Crater, on the volcano’s East Rift Zone, collapsed and sent its pool of lava back underground. Days later, after several small earthquakes, the magma pushed its way back to the surface on the east side of the island’s Leilani Estates neighborhood, creating the first of many fissures to come.

Thousands of Big Island residents who were living near the lava flows have already evacuated the area to escape the lava flows and noxious sulfur dioxide gases rising from the vents.

Late Saturday, a fast-flowing stream of lava pouring from one of the active fissures also reached Highway 137, which hugs the island’s eastern coast. Later that night, the lava entered the ocean, producing spectacular - and deadly - plumes, and officials advised all people to avoid the area because of a new hazard: laze.

Laze occurs when hot lava meets the ocean, sending a plume of hydrochloric acid and steam, along with fine glass particles, into the air. Laze plumes travel with the wind and can shift directions without warning, the county civil defense agency said.

     
   
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