Missile alert causes panic
People flock to shelters as human error lights up phones with false alarm
For 38 harrowing minutes, residents and tourists in Hawaii were left to believe that missiles were streaming across the sky toward the Pacific island chain after an erroneous alert Saturday morning by the state’s emergency management agency.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” warned an 8:07 a.m. message transmitted across the state’s cellphone networks. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Only after an inexplicable delay by the state agency — during which residents scrambled to seek shelter and contact relatives — was a subsequent message sent describing the missile warning as a “false alarm.”
“What happened today was totally unacceptable,” said Gov. David Ige. “Many in our community were deeply affected by this. I am sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced.”
Officials said the alert was the result of human error and not the work of hackers or a foreign government. The mistake occurred during a shift-change drill that takes place three times a day at the emergency command post, according to Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the agency.
“Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer,” he said. “It was erroneous.”
But the explanation of how the alert was sent came only after concern over the mistaken
missile warning had spread to U.S. military command posts and been brought to the attention of President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Rapoza said a new procedure was put in place hours after the mistake requiring twostep authentication before any such alert is sent out.
“Our credibility is vital, and we are going to do whatever we can to make sure this never happens again,” he said.
The episode underscored the heightened level of anxiety, especially in the the western United States, over mounting tensions with North Korea and its nuclear arsenal and the menacing exchanges between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On the island of Oahu, Adam Kurtz of Palolo woke up four minutes after the mass alert was sent and began calculating how much time he and his wife might have to get to safety — assuming there could be no more than 15 minutes between the warning and any missile’s arrival.
Kurtz said that he and his wife grabbed the pets, shut the windows and sheltered in their bathroom. “We just jumped out of bed,” he said. “We were more clear-headed than we expected and didn’t panic as much.”
Matt LoPresti, a state representative, told CNN that he and his family also headed for a bathroom. “I was sitting in the bathtub with my children, saying our prayers,” he said.
The false alert prompted U.S. military officials to scan systems that monitor missile launches; they determined almost instantly that there was no threat. But officials described confusion over whether or how the military should correct a state-issued alert.
At the North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. troops manning the watch floor confirmed within minutes that there were no missiles bearing down on Hawaii. That information was quickly relayed to state officials, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Nawrocki, a spokesman for the command.
But Hawaii struggled to issue a comprehensive correction. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency transmitted its first “no missile threat” message within 12 minutes of the mistaken alert, but that revision only went out on the agency’s Twitter account.
It wasn’t until 8:45 a.m. that the agency was able to issue a false-alarm message across the same cellphone networks that had spread the warning.
“What happened today is totally inexcusable,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat, said in a posting on his Twitter account. “The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”
Because of its mid-Pacific location, Hawaii has long confronted the possibility that it would be the target of any North Korean attack on the United States. That worry has intensified in recent months amid escalating signs of conflict between Pyongyang and Washington.
Less than two months ago, Hawaii took the extraordinary step of reviving a statewide Cold War-style system of sirens designed to alert the population to a nuclear attack. Residents have heard the sirens during system tests in recent months, but the alarms remained quiet amid the false alert Saturday.
In the hours after the alert, images and postings on social media showed people crowding into police stations and seeking shelter in concrete structures including parking garages.
Tricia Padilla, 39, of Kauai, her husband and their two children, aged 10 and 12, took shelter in a steel shipping container on the lawn of their property.
“We just flew into full on mom-and-dad mode and tried to protect our kids from the panic of it,” she said. “My husband had my kids put on jeans and tennis shoes and we gathered up as quickly as we could what we thought we needed.”
They brought with them cereal, protein bars, cookies, apples, a cooler bag filled with turkey, water, a 5-gallon bucket to use as a toilet and toilet paper.
“My 10-year-old was kind of melting, sitting at my feet rocking, saying, ‘Mom, are we going to die today? Why won’t you answer me?’ and I wanted to answer him but I couldn’t. It felt like my worst mom moment,” Padilla said.
Said 10-year-old Evan Padilla: “I just felt like any breath could be my last. I just thought it was going to land and it was all going to be gone.”
“Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer,” Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesman Richard Rapoza said of the alert, which went out shortly after 8 a.m.