Hawaii's Kilaueaa Volcano

U.S. Geological Survey via AP

Another Eruption At Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano

May 17, 2018 - 5:44 pm

PAHOA, Hawaii (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- The Kilauea volcano in Hawaii erupted anew before dawn Thursday, spewing a steely gray plume of ash about 30,000 feet into the sky that began raining down on a nearby town.

Officials in Hawaii County said that the explosive eruption happened at 4:17 a.m.

"The one this morning was definitely the biggest we've seen so far just in terms of energy and how high up into the atmosphere it got," U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist Michelle Coombs said at a morning press conference.

The explosion at the summit followed two weeks of volcanic activity that sent lava flows into neighborhoods and destroyed at least 26 homes. Scientists said the eruption probably lasted only a few minutes.

Geologists have warned that the volcano could become even more violent, with increasing ash production and the potential that future blasts could hurl boulders from the summit.

CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Michael Wallace that people woke up to alerts on their phones on television and on radio Thursday morning – saying one of the biggest plumes so far had risen from above Kilauea.

Toby Hazel, who lives in Pahoa, near the mountain, said she heard "a lot of booming sounds" Thursday. Those came after days of earthquakes.

"It's just time to go - it really, really is," she said, preparing to leave town. "I feel so sorry for the people who don't go, because they don't have the money, or don't want to go to a shelter and leave their houses."

Some people in the community closest to the volcano slept through the blast, said Kanani Aton, a spokeswoman for Hawaii County Civil Defense, who spoke to relatives and friends in the town called Volcano.

At least one person who was awake heard nothing. Epic Lava tour operator John Tarson is an early riser and said he only learned about the eruption because he received an alert on his phone.

Tarson said the ash plume looked different than others he's witnessed because of its sheer height. A video he shared on Facebook showed a towering column of ash reaching into a hazy sky.

"What I noticed is the plume was just rising straight into the air, and it was not tipping in any direction," he said. "We've been expecting this, and a lot of people are going to see it and get excited and scared."

Residents as far away as Hilo, about 30 miles from Kilauea, were noticing the volcano's effects. Pua'ena Ahn, who lives in Hilo, complained about having labored breathing, itchy, watery eyes and some skin irritation from airborne ash.

Begnaud said while the ash rose high into the air, the eruption Thursday morning was not “the big one” in terms of intensity.

“Yes, in fact, it was the biggest in terms of how high it rose – 30,000 feet in the air. But it was actually one of the smallest, and it didn’t last long. Helping with the spread of the ash was the rain that actually sort of dissipated the ash – didn’t make it very far – and so the ash was localized, if you will,” Begnaud said.

But the larger concern Thursday was the sulfur dioxide gas in the area where fissures have opened and are emitting lava and steam.

“Where those fissures are, rescue officials have been evacuated and moved back quite a ways because the sulfur dioxide readings are some of the highest they’ve been since this all started,” Begnaud said.

A National Weather Service ash advisory was in effect until noon. Several schools closed because of the risk of elevated levels of sulfur dioxide.

The crater sits within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has been closed since May 11 as a safety precaution over risks of a violent eruption.

Scientists warned May 9 that a drop in the lava lake at the summit might create conditions for an explosion that could fling ash and refrigerator-sized boulders into the air. Geologists predicted such a blast would mostly release trapped steam from flash-heated groundwater. If it happens, communities a mile or two away could be showered by pea-size fragments or dusted with ash.

Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, has been erupting continuously since 1983. It's among the five volcanoes that form Hawaii's Big Island, and the only one that's actively erupting. An eruption in 1924 killed one person and sent rocks, ash and dust into the air for 17 days.

As to the current lava flow, Begnaud said it could go on for a while – noting that one lava flow in the 1950s went on for 88 days.

“Nobody really knows how long this is going to go for. But expect much more of these big eruptions that make news and then sort of dissipate,” he said.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)