HONOLULU • A blob of hot volcanic lava struck an ocean tour boat just off the Big Island of Hawaii on Monday, injuring nearly two dozen people in the worst casualty incident to date from the ongoing eruption of the Kilauea volcano.
A huge steam-driven explosion, caused by molten rock mixing with seawater as it poured from the shoreline, sent a "lava bomb" crashing through the roof of the boat and into the vessel's seating area, the authorities said.
The boat returned to port in Hilo on its own power less than an hour later, and three of the injured, including a woman in her 20s whose leg was broken, were taken to a local hospital by ambulance, Hawaii County Fire Department Battalion chief Darwin Okinaka said.
Nine or 10 others with less severe injuries were driven to the hospital by private vehicles, and 10 more people were treated by paramedics at the port, he said. A civil defence spokesman, Ms Kelly Wooten, put the total number of injuries at 23.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) said the boat was operated by Lava Ocean Tours, one of at least three firms offering daily excursions to passengers who pay about US$220 (S$300) per person to watch from a vessel lava flowing into the sea.
The stricken 49-passenger-seat vessel, dubbed Hot Spot, was later videotaped manoeuvring to its dock after passengers were unloaded.
A still photograph furnished by DLNR showed a gaping hole in its canopy. The boat was also showered with smaller bits of volcanic debris and cinder from the explosion. Eyewitness video footage from a nearby vessel showed a towering cloud of steam and ash billowing into the sky, punctuated by the glow of red-hot embers and flashes of lightning.
An investigation is under way, according to US Coast Guard spokesman Amanda Levasseur.
The incident occurred shortly after dawn near the eastern-most edge of Big Island, where lava from the 10-week-old Kilauea eruption has been flowing into the Pacific since early last month.
The boat's distance from shore and from the site of the lava explosion was not immediately known, the authorities said. Vessels are generally barred from venturing any closer than 300m to lava ocean entries under US Coast Guard safety rules, though experienced boat operators had received special permission to get as close as 50m.