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Residents brave toxic fumes and thundering eruption in brief dash to their homes


    Leilani Estates resident Lucina Aquilina drove near lava Sunday on Luana Street as residents were allowed to return to their homes to gather belongings.


    On Sunday there was traffic along Highway 132 as Leilani Estates residents waited to return home to gather vital belongings and animals in Pahoa.


    Kerekgyarto packed her car Sunday.


    Lava crept onto the pavement on Luana Street on Sunday.


    Leilani Estates resident Ken Peeler looked at his photos Sunday while packing to evacuate.


    Leilani Estates resident Lucina Aquilina picked up a broken picture frame Sunday that had fallen inside her home. It appeared to be the only damage from Friday’s earthquake.


    Leilani Estates residents Elizabeth Kerekgyarto, right, and Lucina Aquilina embraced before parting ways outside Kerekgyarto’s home Sunday at Leilani Estates in Pahoa.

PAHOA, Hawaii >> It wasn’t the eye- stinging sulfur dioxide in the air or the lava flowing across Luana Street five blocks away that bothered Elizabeth Kerekgyarto as she furiously packed her rainbow- colored Isuzu Trooper on Sunday afternoon.

It was that sound — a sound Kerekgyarto had never heard before — from a spouting torrent of lava about 300 yards makai from her Leilani Avenue home that scared her the most.

She couldn’t see the spurting lava from her two-bedroom, two-bath house. But it sounded like the roar of the biggest North Shore waves ever, funneled through a gigantic fire hose.

“It’s getting louder,” Kerekgyarto said, looking at the plumes of dark smoke shooting into the sky. “It’s getting more dangerous. I can’t believe it’s right down our street. That’s too close. Too, too close.”

Hawaii County Emergency Management officials allowed worried Leilani Street residents like Kerekgyarto — at least those who live between Highway 130 and Maile Street — temporarily back into their homes Sunday to retrieve whatever they wanted.

It was the first homecoming for some of the 1,800 residents from Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens since a series of earthquakes and lava-spewing fissures opened up and forced their evacuation Thursday.

Officials planned to allow some residents back in this morning, even though the toll of destroyed property from the eruption from Kilauea continued to rise.

On Saturday five structures were reported consumed by the 2,000-degree lava. By midday Sunday the number increased to 21, then 26, then 30, most of them homes.

And 10 fissures had been reported.

Lucina Aquilina drove across the fissure on Luana Avenue and was stunned at the heat that 2,000 degrees of lava can generate.

“It was the heat,” Aquilina said. “You could feel all that heat. I’m going to pray really hard that it’s going to stop.”

To get back into Leilani Estates, Aquilina first had to show identification proving she belonged, then was dropped off at the checkpoint at the intersection of Highways 130 and 132 right next to Pahoa High and Intermediate School in order to retrieve her husband’s car that was left behind, packed with compressed tanks of propane gas.

It’s normally a 10-minute drive down Highway 130 to Leilani Avenue. But without a car, Aquilina walked faster than the traffic jam of vehicles that took four hours to reach the second checkpoint at Leilani Avenue, where Hawaii County police checked IDs and addresses again and logged license plate numbers.

About a mile into her hike, Aquilina finally jumped into the back of Kerekgyarto’s Isuzu and spent about three hours crawling through traffic — bracing herself for what she would find at the couple’s three-bedroom, two-bath home on Alapai Street.

As they made the left turn into her driveway, Aquilina saw that her house was safe — at least on Sunday.

Once inside, the only damage appeared to be broken glass in a picture frame that apparently fell during Friday’s 6.9-magnitude earthquake, and bottles and cans that landed on the floor of her hallway.

“I could cry,” Aquilina said.

Then she immediately teared up and said, “And I’m sorry for all the people who lost their homes.”

At the home on Leilani Avenue that Kerekgyarto, 59, shares with her roommate, Ken Peeler, 56, the two went to work sorting through what to pack — and what to leave.

As he stuffed the trunk and seats of his Lincoln Touring Sedan, Peeler said, “This is how big of a deal this is: I’m not even taking my tools and few thousand dollars’ worth of fishing gear and tackle that I really want to bring.”

To make room for more clothes, household items and cat food and toys, Peeler dumped the contents of a box into his trunk, then threw the empty box onto the home’s lanai.

“More kindling,” he said as the fountain of lava roared down the street.

Then Peeler shouted, “Just kidding.”

As she drove away in her loaded Isuzu and considered the possibility she might never see her home again, Kerekgyarto wrestled to put her emotions in perspective.

“This is Pele’s ground,” she finally said. “It’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve always called this land her creation — and her cremation.”

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