HONOLULU – As slow-moving lava approached a cemetery in a rural Hawaii town, Aiko Sato placed flowers at the headstone of the family plot she's tended to over the years, thinking it would be the last time she would see it.
"I made peace with myself," Sato said Monday of visiting the Pahoa Japanese Cemetery on Oct. 23. A few days later, when lava smothered part of the cemetery the family believed the headstone was covered.
But a photo taken Oct. 28 by a scientist documenting the lava's progress showed the headstone engraved with the Sato name standing in a sea of black lava.
"I feel like it's a miracle," Sato, 63, said. "I know subsequent breakouts could cover the grave but at least I know it survived like a first round."
The lava's flow front stalled over the weekend and on Monday morning remained about 480 feet from Pahoa Village Road, which goes through downtown. A breakout of the flow remained about 100 yards from a house. Residents in the area have left or are preparing to leave.
Sato's aunt, Eiko Kajiyama, 83, said she was heartbroken when she heard lava covered the cemetery. When she got the photo from the scientist, she hugged and thanked him, she recalled.
The Hawaii Volcano Observatory wouldn't normally release such photos out of respect for the family of the deceased but provided the Sato family with a copy after a chance encounter between the family and an observatory scientist, observatory spokeswoman Janet Babb said in a statement.
"During their conversation, the scientist recalled that he had just seen the family headstone the night before and was able to provide information about its status," the statement said. "Days later, while looking through HVO's photos, he realized that this particular image showed the Sato headstone and offered to provide a copy to the family."
Kajiyama said it feels like Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, spared the headstone.
"We're so thankful we know the tomb is still there." Her sister and brother, who died as infants, are buried there, along with the urns of her parents.
Kajiyama knows a breakout of the flow could later cover the cemetery. And while her home is not in the lava's path, she bracing for the possibility it could reach her house.
"I'm just waiting day by day," she said. "With the lava, you don't know what's happening."