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Helicopter mission allows widow to gather belongings before losing home to lava

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Cosette Bonjour, right, and photographer Bruce Omori leave a helicopter so Bonjour can retrieve things from her Vacationland home before it was consumed by lava.

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Bonjour holds a painting she hopes to present to one of her benefactors.

About five years ago Cosette Bonjour was selected by AARP Magazine as one of the nation’s best examples of living your best life after 50.

The now 65-year-old Hawaii island painter had found a way to live her best life despite surviving Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and the loss of two husbands. On Wednesday lava took the Vacationland home that Bonjour and her second husband, Joel Shockman, built in 2001 on a plot of land so magical that the couple could see whales frolicking in nearby waters.

Despite her latest setback, however, the ever-resilient Bonjour is buoyed by gratitude.

She’s thankful for the June 4 humanitarian mission that allowed her to gather precious belongings before her home became one of the 600 overtaken by lava since fissures began opening May 3 in Lower Puna.

When volcanic activity began, Bonjour was at her sister’s Seattle home recuperating from foot surgery. She had put her Vacationland home on the market only a few months before, and her greatest worries were contemplating whether downsizing meant retiring on the mainland or to a smaller place on Hawaii island.

Bonjour said she never thought volcanic activity would destroy her home — after all, the lava was miles away. Also, she thought, her home had been built in hexagonal patterns from wood harvested on Hawaii island, and according to sacred geometry hexagons signify stable foundations.

“It never entered my mind that I would lose (the house),” Bonjour said. “Like a lot of people, my late husband and I thought Green Mountain would protect us. We didn’t think lava would come here in our lifetime.”

While in Seattle, Bonjour said, she avoided the images on Facebook and the nightly news, choosing instead to monitor Civil Defense reports. When it became clear that the flow was headed to her neighborhood, she booked a flight back.

“When I got to the Hilo airport on Friday (June 1), my neighbors had already been evacuated. I tried to drive into the neighborhood but was turned away,” Bonjour said.

On June 2 she and another neighbor got permission to drive down Red Road but had to turn around at Four Corners.

“We saw 25-foot-high lava about 150 feet away. It was a few miles from our homes, but officials didn’t think we had time to make it. If it had crossed the road, we wouldn’t have been able to make it back,” Bonjour said. “They were also concerned about the smoke, which was moving very quickly.”

Bonjour said she also tried to get there by boat, but the waves were too high. On June 3, Bruce Omori, a Hawaii island photographer known for his extreme lava shots, helped her connect with Paradise Helicopters, and a former military pilot there was willing to take her on the tough mission. After incessant calls to Mayor Harry Kim, county Civil Defense and the Hawaii County Fire Department, Bonjour’s mission was approved for June 4.

Cal Dorn, Paradise Helicopters CEO, said, “It was a complicated flight to arrange, and there were a lot of issues to work through. Everyone kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’ But we wanted to help this lady because her story tugged at our heartstrings.”

“We’re not a standard helicopter tour company; our pilots have military and utility experience. We knew they would be able to make leadership decisions on the fly,” Dorn said.

By the time the flight was cleared, a “laze” plume was settling over the home, which was about 250 yards from where lava was entering the ocean. Rob Mitchell, who spent 11 years flying for the Marine Corps before joining Paradise Helicopters as a pilot and Hilo operations manager, volunteered for the trip. Mitchell, who is still a major in the Marine Corps Reserves, previously flew combat operations in Iraq, anti-piracy missions in Africa and humanitarian missions in Japan and South Korea.

Before flying, Mitchell picked out three possible landing sites, but changing conditions made two untenable. Worried that the third site’s distance would not allow for a fast enough exit, Mitchell improvised midair and found a new landing spot on the beach behind Bonjour’s home.

“Some pilots might have turned around, but this was personal for me. Most people in the area had time to evacuate, but she had been on the mainland and was just coming off a medical procedure. My heart was bleeding for her,” Mitchell said. “Also, I was comfortable with the conditions. I’ve flown hundreds of military missions, and I do a lot of diverse missions as a utility pilot. I did a low-altitude pass and picked out another spot, and it worked.”

Bonjour, who had donned a gas mask and was joined by Omori, had just 25 minutes to run into her home and remove a very few precious belongings.

“It was quite an adventure but I wasn’t scared. I was determined,” she said. “I knew I would never have closure if I couldn’t return to my home one last time. There also were papers that I needed to get and some heirloom jewelry. I also took a painting of me at the Red Road that my dear friend (the late) Arthur Johnson had painted.”

Bonjour remembers looking at a map of the lava destruction June 5 and being thankful there was “a little puka around my house, which was still standing.”

But just two days after her harrowing helicopter ride, Bonjour awoke to find that her home was gone.

“We had made it in at exactly the 11th hour. We couldn’t have made it in any later,” she said.

Bonjour is now bouncing back and forth between friends in Hilo and Kona and trying to draw on the resilience that got her featured in that long-ago AARP article. She’s exploring a move to Portland, Ore., but some of the retirement plans that she was considering earlier this year were contingent on her selling the Vacationland home, which was listed for $875,000. While the Lava 2 zone home was insured, Bonjour said a settlement isn’t likely to cover the cost to rebuild it.

“I can probably only recoup about a third of what the home is worth,” she said. “I collapsed recently. I had to go to bed early, and I cried. I didn’t know if I could even get up. I’m in shock. But I know from other times in my life that everything eventually works out. As I go on, I trust that things will get better. I’m an optimist.”

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