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 yesterday 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 last week 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 yesterday morning remained about 480 feet from Pahoa Village Road, which goes through downtown. 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. The Hawaii Volcano Observatory provided the Sato family with a copy after a chance encounter between the family and an observatory scientist, said an observatory spokeswoman. "The scientist recalled that he had just seen the family headstone the night before. 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."