In a Bowl of Fire

UPDATED 12/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

ALL THE HOLLYWOOD FILM CREW HAD TO GET WAS ONE MORE shot in Hawaii. But that one scene—for Paramount's forthcoming thriller Sliver, starring Sharon Stone—required flying a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter inside the Pu'u 'O'o crater of Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, which has been erupting for the past 10 years. Still, cinematographer Michael Benson, 49, and technician Chris Duddy, 31, were confident they could pull it off. The helicopter was being piloted by Craig Hosking, 34, who had worked with Benson in the past. For insurance, as custom dictated, Duddy had thrown a bottle of gin into the crater on an earlier flight that morning to appease Madam Pele, the resident Hawaiian goddess. But he had missed, and the bottle had landed near the crater wall rather than in the fire pit.

As the helicopter skimmed along in low visibility near that very spot, trouble struck. Benson and Duddy suddenly heard Hosking curse and say, "We've got a problem." They looked up just in time to see the wall of the volcano directly in front of them. "Oh, s—t, we're dead," said Duddy. A split second later, Benson saw the two rotor blades hit the wall and shear off. The chopper, which had been flying only about 10 feet above the floor of the crater, immediately plunged to the ground and broke apart into three pieces.

Miraculously, none of the men were hurt. Within minutes, though, they were engulfed by harsh fumes of hydrogen sulfide and sulphur dioxide. Determined to get out, Duddy, who had played football at Los Angeles Valley College, and Benson started climbing the nearest wall, only to keep slipping back in the loose cinder. "You grab on to the stuff, and it crumbles under you," he said. Eventually, Benson managed to reach a narrow ledge about 75 feet below the rim, while Duddy was able to climb 30 feet higher. By then none of the three could see each other because of the steam and fumes. Meanwhile, Hosking, who had stayed behind, got the chopper-radio working and called another Paramount unit. Two hours later rescuers located them. The problem was that Duddy and Benson were in a particularly inaccessible spot in the crater. Any rescue attempt on foot might cost the life of a park ranger or start an avalanche that would bury the men.

With fog and clouds closing in, reducing visibility almost to zero, Benson and Duddy suddenly heard the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. They started shouting to Hosking, who was still not in sight. When he didn't reply, they assumed he had fallen or been overcome by the fumes. But in fact the helicopter had spotted Hosking through a break in the clouds and had lifted him to safety. With darkness falling, Duddy and Benson realized they were going to have to spend a night clinging to their separate ledges inside the volcano. Once an hour throughout the night, a ranger up on the rim blew a whistle to help keep the men's spirits up. "It was the greatest feeling in the world to hear that whistle," says Benson.

They needed every encouragement, and every ounce of fortitude they could muster. Below them in the distance, a lava lake glowed a fiery red and made an eerie bubbling sound, like surf pounding deep in the earth. A soaking rain drenched them and, at 2,400 feet above sea level, the winds quickly turned cold.

The next morning the weather was even worse. "I started to lose hope," Duddy said. He looked up the cliff and told himself, "I can die trying to get out of here, or I can die waiting, curled up here in the fetal position." And so, after shouting to Benson, whom he couldn't see, he said a prayer, took a deep breath and started climbing. When he finally got close to the top, after about an hour, the cinder wall was so crumbly he had to dig his arms in elbow deep to keep from sliding off. With a final heave, he propelled himself over the top and to safety.

For his part, Benson thought that Duddy's climb had ended in tragedy. A piece of volcanic rock, dislodged during the ascent, had dropped into the crater, convincing him that Duddy had fallen to his death and that he was the last survivor. In a way the whole ordeal suddenly seemed as incredible as any action film—and a whole lot scarier. "I was waiting for the director to say, 'Cut!' " says Benson, who worked on such movies as Terminator 2 and Patriot Games. "But reality set in, and I said, 'This is not a movie. This is real, and I'm actually sitting here, dying.' " That night he again got no sleep, lying awake with nothing but terrifying hallucinations to keep him company. At one point he even saw an image of Madam Pele, the redoubtable fire goddess. Another time, Benson pictured himself at the Rose Bowl with his wife, Stephanie, and their two children for a game between USC and UCLA being played that day. "All these faces of everyone I had known came by me," he said. "I heard maybe 2,000 voices, and every one of them said, 'You have everything to live for. You're a fighter. You're too young to die.' "

Luckily the voices turned out to be right. Salvation came the next morning in the form of Maui pilot Tom Hauptman, who braved near white-out conditions to effect a daring rescue. Holding his chopper rock-steady, one skid on the lip of the volcano, Hauptman dangled a 70-foot cable, with a chair-size basket on the end, in Benson's vicinity. On the fourth cast, Benson grabbed hold and climbed aboard. "They lifted me out of there and gave me the ride of my life," he said later from his hotel room in Hilo, recovering from inflammation of the lungs and severe laryngitis. "I looked down and said, 'Madam Pele, I beat you!' "

BILL HEWITT
STU GLAUBERMAN in Hilo

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