Successful first responders are individuals who manage to keep their cool when circumstances cause others to lose theirs.
According to Maj. Samuel Jelsma, a former Puna Patrol commander who’s now in charge of East Hawaii operations for the Hawaii Police Department, at least two officers went above and beyond the call of duty last year when the ground around them was literally cracking open and spewing lava, volcanic ash and toxic gases.
Jelsma said Officer Roberto Segobia, who was named Hawaii County Employee of the Year for 2018, and Sgt. Chris Correa, then a Puna watch supervisor and now in charge of East Hawaii’s Traffic Enforcement Unit, went door-to-door ensuring residents ordered to evacuate in Leilani Estates subdivision were doing so on May 3, 2018, the first night of Kilauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone eruption.
“They stepped up to the plate when they needed to,” Jelsma said. “When the initial eruption went off, it was really chaotic. Without being told, they were going where they needed to go. They took it upon themselves to do what was needed to keep everybody safe.
“They actually got exposed to the volcanic gases. At that point, we didn’t have any respirators for them. To me, they went above and beyond to try and get people out of there,” he said.
Correia said he, officers Segobia, Joshua Baumgarner and Chance Lunsford held over from a previous watch that ended at 11:30 p.m. to ensure those who needed to leave the subdivision had done so or were doing so.
“I remember cinder dropping all over the place — on the vehicles,” Correia said. “This lava phenomenon was a new thing for us. We didn’t really know much about it, that it could open in the neighborhood. It smelled pretty bad. We had no idea about the (sulfur dioxide) or anything like that.”
Segobia, a six-year police veteran and U.S. Army Iraq War veteran, said a dispatcher instructed him to report to Neil Azevedo, the county’s highway maintenance chief, who needed assistance evacuating an elderly woman and children on Mohala Street, site of the first fissure.
“As I turned in to Mohala Street, it was like something out of one movie, Jurassic Park-type thing, Jumanji-kine stuff,” Segobia recalled. “I look at the end of the road and I see lava and fumes and the sound was undescribable. It was almost like one jet engine (from) the pressure coming out of this crack. I meet up with Neil at the side of the road and he tells me, ‘You see the driveway over there?’ I said, ‘The driveway by the fissure?’ He said, “Yeah. The driveway on the left, they got an old lady and some kids in the house. You got to go over there (and) evacuate them.’
“You have adrenaline. You have fear, of course. For me, I’m a combat veteran and it kind of drives me forward out of fear. Fear not only for myself, but for the person that needs the help, knowing that there’s an old lady and kids in this house. So after he gives me that information, I head straight to that driveway. And this driveway is, I’d say, three- to four-hundred feet away from this crack, where this lava is coming out. I can’t drive up this driveway, there’s a chain across it, so I park my car and I run. The house is about 75 yards in, so I sprint 75 yards to this house. I’m banging on this house, announcing my presence: ‘Hello, police, police, police,’ and I can feel the heat, I can hear this thing going off, I can see this thing going off right next to me and I’m thinking, ‘What if the ground opens up right under me?’ All of this stuff is going through my mind. But my main concern was to get these people out of this house.’”
As it turned out, firefighters showed up and told Segobia the home had already been evacuated.
“Later I think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I ran up to this active lava flow.’ The fissure was shooting stuff straight up into the air. But you don’t think about the totality of the circumstances until after, you know, when it’s all done, people are safe and you’re safe,” he said.
Not everybody was on board with the county’s evacuation orders, however, as Segobia discovered.
“I’m telling people, ‘You gotta go. There’s lava that might come down here.’ And to my disbelief, some people refused to leave,” he said. “I had one guy slam the door in my face and tell me he’s not going nowhere. I told him I could see the glow. I could see the lava shooting in the air. I got in my car and called dispatch and gave them the address. I didn’t even know this guy’s name. I just told them he was refusing to leave. So I kept going door-to-door.
“We didn’t have respirators. We had no protection. I was breathing in all that smoke and sulfur. And the next day, when I finally came home off duty and got some rest, I woke up and it felt like I was breathing sand. It was like sand was scratching my lungs, my throat. I was spitting out a little bit blood.”
For about the next five months, Puna Patrol stood 12-hour watches and manned checkpoints at Leilani Estates and in Kapoho, assisted by Hawaii Army National Guard troops. Officers were brought in to help from Hilo, as well.
“Hilo worked with two watches and they gave one entire watch to Puna to supplement what we were doing, so everybody was doing 12-hour shifts. They were burning the candle at both ends, ” Jelsma said.
“Fortunately, we didn’t have any loss of life, which was probably based on a combination of factors. But they definitely helped to contribute to make sure people were getting out of there safely, as the eruption was occurring.”
Correia, a 19-year veteran and Segobia’s training officer, described Segobia as “an exceptional officer.”
“Probably the best compliment I can give him is if my family member was the victim of a crime, he’s the type of officer I would want to respond and help my family member. He leaves no stone unturned,” he said.
Both Correia and Segobia called the response to Leilani a team effort and praised the lower Puna community for its resilience in a time of crisis.
“The real story is how the community came together,” Correia said. “People there were potentially going to lose their houses, and they were giving us water, stopping and talking to us, giving us snacks. I really appreciate it. It was an awesome feeling. I have no idea what they went through. I live in Puna but I was safe up in Mountain View at the time. With all those considerations, I was just really impressed with the way the community came together and, you know, just the aloha spirit of the community.”