A large number of people died during an explosive eruption of Kīlauea Volcano in 1790 CE. Detailed study of the upper part of the Keanakāko‘i Tephra has identified the deposits that may have been responsible for the deaths. Three successive units record shifts in eruption style that agree well with accounts of the eruption based on survivor interviews 46 yr later. First, a wet fall of very fine, accretionary-lapilli–bearing ash created a “cloud of darkness.” People walked across the soft deposit, leaving footprints as evidence. While the ash was still unconsolidated, lithic lapilli fell into it from a high eruption column that was seen from 90 km away. Either just after this tephra fall or during its latest stage, pulsing dilute pyroclastic density currents, probably products of a phreatic eruption, swept across the western flank of Kīlauea, embedding lapilli in the muddy ash and crossing the trail along which the footprints occur. The pyroclastic density currents were most likely responsible for the fatalities, as judged from the reported condition and probable location of the bodies. This reconstruction is relevant today, as similar eruptions will probably occur in the future at Kīlauea and represent its most dangerous and least predictable hazard.

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