National News

He couldn't save his car and 'Star Wars' mailbox from the lava

Posted May 9, 2018 1:48 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 11:13 a.m. EDT

The car needed a jump-start, and its owner, Mike Hale, had no time to spare.

He had returned Saturday to his home in the Leilani Estates neighborhood on the island of Hawaii, where eruptions from the Kilauea volcano had forced residents to flee. Hale had thought he would be able to pack up his tools, dishes and camping gear. But as he and his companions started choking on the hazardous fumes released by volcanic activity, he realized they needed to get out.

The group drove away, leaving his dead car, a banged-up 2004 Ford Mustang that he sometimes rented to tourists, parked next to his mailbox on the side of the road.

By the time Hale tried to get back the next day, both would be gone. But their fate had been captured in video footage that would spread across television news and social media.

Recorded by a videographer who travels the world to capture extreme weather events, the footage showed an insatiable mound of lava marching across the road. The lava engulfed the car and the mailbox, which Hales’ daughter had fashioned into a facsimile of R2-D2, the “Star Wars” droid.

The videographer, Brendan Clement, had the footage, including a time-lapse video that was widely seen, shared in posts on his Facebook page of weather videos. The footage gave viewers around the world an up-close glimpse of the molten threat posed to two communities on the island’s eastern edge.

By Tuesday afternoon in Hawaii, two new vents had opened in the affected area, where 1,800 residents live, and a previous fissure was actively erupting, according to a county spokeswoman.

Thirty-six structures had been destroyed by sunset Tuesday, an official who answered the phone at the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said. Of those, 26 were homes, he said.

“There could possibly be more, but we won’t know more until the morning,” said the official, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

Since Thursday, 14 fissures have erupted in the area, spattering lava across 104 acres, according to authorities, who have also warned of dangerous sulfur dioxide gases.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Hale, 48, said he was camping in an empty lot he owns in Pahoa, an area nearby. The mailbox was a bigger loss than the car, he said. It had been a Christmas gift from his 26-year-old daughter, Brittany, a few years ago — a memento of their shared love for the “Star Wars” movies. People would drive by his home, see the mailbox, stop and back up to take pictures.

The lava flow captured on video was blocking his path home when he tried to get back Sunday. Hale, who runs a car rental business on the island and owns a rental residence, said it was traumatic to watch plumes of smoke, which he assumed were coming from his home, rise from the other side of the lava wall. He kicked himself for not coming back earlier. Perhaps he could have rescued more — maybe even the collection of “Star Wars” mugs from his kitchen.

But watching the video of the time-lapse later, he said, gave him an odd kind of peace.

“I have respect for the lava and for Pele,” he said, invoking the name of the Hawaiian fire goddess. “She just wanted to come onto the property. I guess it’s just kind of surrendering to nature. Seeing it, I felt like ‘OK, you have what you have, it’s done.'”