Hawai'i Man Dies After Falling Through Lava Tube While Gardening In His Backyard

The Kaumana Caves lava tubes found on Hawaii's Big Island. Orxy/Shutterstock

An elderly man living in Hawai’i died earlier this week after falling through a lava tube in his backyard, local authorities report.

Officials found the man at his residence around 8:30 in the morning after being notified that he had not been seen or heard from in several days.

“It appeared that he had fallen through a soft area of ground into a lava tube on his property,” wrote the Hawai’i Police Department (HPD) in a statement. “Hawai’i Fire Department Rescue personnel responded to the scene and were able to repel into the lava tube and extract the victim, whose body was approximately 22 feet [6.7 meters] below the surface."

The man was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead – no foul play is expected. An autopsy determined that the “victim died as a result of injuries consistent with falling.”

“It appears (the victim) was trimming some branches in his yard and fell into a lava tube on his property and expired,” HPD Major Robert Wagner told a local newspaper. “(He) fell about 20 feet down.”

As their name suggests, lava tubes are formed by hot flowing magma moving as a result of volcanic activity. As lava flows, the outer layers cool faster than the inside layers and harden, allowing for the interior lava to continue flowing. When a volcanic eruption ends or the lava is diverted elsewhere, the US Geological Society says that lava is drained downslope and leaves “partially empty conduits beneath the ground.”

It is not immediately known how the man fell into the lava tube. An expert speaking with the Washington Post said that he believes there was already a hole in the ground, but it was perhaps covered in overgrowth, making it difficult to see. Such holes are ubiquitous across the island – many unbeknownst to its inhabitants.

“You could be standing on one and not even know it,” Ken Hon, a volcanologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, told the publication.

The identity of the man has not been released as police are waiting for a positive identification following notification of next of kin.

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