Won Gil and Insook Choi locked their rental car at the end of Highway 130, heading out on what they thought would be a four-hour hike to view Kilauea’s lava.
Little did the Rancho Rio, N.M., couple know the hike to Kalapana they were told was easily accessible would turn into a 17-hour trek that tested their will to survive and be rescued.
Won Gil, 70, and his wife, Insook, 66, arrived Jan. 7 on the island for a weeklong stay after teaching at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and taking part in a Christian mission in Cambodia. First on the to-do list was witnessing lava flow into the ocean from Kilauea.
The next morning, the couple departed Hilo, drove to the end of Highway 130 in Puna — a locale the rental car company informed them was an “easily accessible” lava viewing area. There, they turned down a guided tour, Won Gil said, noting the couple regularly hikes and did not want to wait for the next tour.
It was 11:30 a.m. The five- to six-mile hike would take no more than three to four hours, bringing the couple back to their car on the highway by 5 p.m., Won Gil remembers thinking.
They had rain gear, light jackets, water, food, hiking boots and flashlights when they set out. Won Gil, though he didn’t bring a compass or GPS, used several points, including a home and smoke plume, to gauge their position.
Captivated by lava entering the ocean and expansive fields of black lava, Won Gil said they began taking photos. At some point, they must have lost their bearings, he said.
“We looked back (at) the wide lava fields and looked for the way we thought we had walked along,” Won Gil said. “The trees and houses were no longer in my sight.”
The couple soon began trying to retrace their steps to no avail. They continued snapping photos until about 6 p.m. and as the sun set, the couple realized they had become seriously disoriented.
Insook called 9-1-1 as Won Gil prepared his flashlight. Emergency dispatchers told Insook the Hawaii Fire Department would dispatch a helicopter to assist in their search. They had to await rescue.
About 8 p.m., Insook contacted dispatch again, to learn a helicopter rescue was not possible because of darkness. A local expert would instead head out on foot to locate the pair, however, that fell through after the expert determined the couple was too far away and at too high of an elevation to rescue that night.
Again, Won Gil and Insook were told to stay put for the night, something Won Gil said was not a good idea, since his wife already appeared scared and dehydrated.
“We told them we had to go on — we are not staying here for the night,” Won Gil said. “We cannot stay, we have to keep walking, my wife was cold and didn’t feel good.”
Their cellphone battery died. Going against emergency officials’ advice, they walked. It seemed they were making no headway in the darkness.
Then, Won Gil said, around 1 a.m. flashing blue and white lights were visible in the direction of the ocean. The couple, initially thinking the lights were from boats, headed toward the ocean following the faint lights.
Eventually Won Gil shined his flashlight, and a light flashed back. They began walking faster than before in the direction of the lights, which grew brighter and clearer as they progressed.
“When I flashed the light and they responded I thought, ‘It must be police,’” Won Gil said.
It was police — Puna Patrol Officers Luke Watkins and Murray Toledo to be exact. The officers had been waiting with the couple’s rental vehicle for a tow, but decided to continue the search on their own.
Watkins told West Hawaii Today the two officers felt compelled to find the Chois because the couple is about the age of their parents. Wearing traffic vests and their uniforms, the pair took to the lava fields with their flashlights.
After hiking about a mile, seeing only blinks of the Chois flashlight, Watkins climbed a hill, providing better sight over the area. Using his light, Watkins led Toledo for a couple of hours in the direction of the couple until they met up.
“The woman was so ecstatic to see us. She was so exhausted,” Watkins said, noting the lava had shredded the officers’ boots. “The man was embarrassed.”
“You are OK now. I am officer Toledo,” Won Gil said were the first words the couple heard from their rescuers as the party came around some bushes. The officers quickly checked on the couple, providing a bottle of water to Insook before beginning a nearly one-mile hike to the staging area.
It wasn’t until about 3:30 a.m. that the ordeal ended and the couple was out of the lava fields. Insook was taken to Hilo Medical Center and was treated for weakness and dehydration, while Won Gil declined medical attention.
The couple was also directed to the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, which Won Gil said was very helpful after the experience getting them back to their hotel and reconnecting them with the rental car.
The Chois thanked those involved, including the dispatchers, rescuers, police and local experts, who helped them out of the lava field.
“I don’t know that if this happened to us in another place that we would get that kind of treatment,” Won Gil said. “I feel like the Big Island is my home now.”