Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday, scores of Hawaii residents received an emergency cellphone alert with an alarming message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The message, reportedly sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in error, would turn out to be a false alarm, officials said. Nevertheless, it would take 38 minutes for authorities to clear up the mistake with a follow-up alert.
The time in between sparked a brief panic in a state where fears of an attack by North Korea have heightened in recent months. Residents and tourists reported seeking shelter, frantically gathering supplies, and calling and texting loved ones to say their goodbyes. Afterward, anger at the false alarm was widespread, and Hawaii officials vowed to get to the bottom of how an error of such magnitude was made.
According to images, the initial alert urging people to seek shelter was sent out around 8:07 a.m. Courtney McLaughlin, a wedding coordinator on the island of Kauai, said the alerts quickly turned a serene Saturday morning into “mass hysteria” on the roads.
“My boyfriend was like, ‘Who do we sue for this?’ We don’t just need an apology, we need an explanation. Someone could have had a heart attack,” McLaughlin, 29, said. “It took something that’s kind of incomprehensible and very quickly made it very personal. All of a sudden going through your mind is, ‘Is this the end of my life?’ I called my mom, I called my dad, I called my brother and basically said my goodbyes.”
Honolulu resident Noah Tom was picking up breakfast for a meeting when he heard of the alerts. Thinking he might only have 15 to 20 minutes before a missile strike, Tom considered how his family was split up across three locations: He had just dropped off his oldest daughter at the airport, while his two younger children were at home. His wife was already at work.
“I literally sent out ‘I love you’ texts to as many family members as I could. It was all kind of surreal at that point,” Tom, 48, told The Washington Post. He made the difficult decision of turning the car toward home, where his two youngest children were. “I figured it was the largest grouping of my family.”
At 8:20 a.m., the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted that there was ‘NO missile threat’ to the state. But it wouldn’t be until 8:45 a.m. that an additional cellphone alert was sent to Hawaii residents advising them that the first warning had been a false alarm.
“There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii,” the follow-up alert read, according to images of the message. “Repeat. False Alarm.”
Tom, the Honolulu father who raced toward his two youngest children, said he hadn’t reached home when he heard that the alert was a mistake.
“The adrenaline was super pumping. I’m usually pretty levelheaded about these things. I don’t tend to scare easily,” Tom said. To his surprise, he pulled over by the side of the road and cried after learning of the mistake. “I just kind of broke down at that point. It all kind of hit me in a wave, what I had just gone through. I was unable to drive for 20 or 30 minutes.”
It is unclear how or why the initial alert was sent out, and how many people received it. Wireless emergency alerts are usually dispatched during critical emergency situations and are a partnership of the Federal Communications Commission, FEMA and the wireless industry. Shortly after the false alarm, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the commission was launching an investigation into what happened.
On Saturday, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said President Trump had been briefed on the situation. She added that the alert was “purely a state exercise.” A senior U.S. official told The Post that Trump was at his Florida golf course at Mar-a-Lago when the scare happened and knew “soon after” that the alerts had been determined false.
What was clear was that the erroneous alerts caused a panic among those who read it and expected the worst. On social media, Hawaii residents shared what they had done — or felt helpless to do — in the wake of the first alert. One family was shown in a widely shared video trying to put their children into a storm drain for safety.
On CNN, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said she received the alert, called Hawaii officials right away and confirmed that it was “an inadvertent message that was sent out.”
“You can only imagine what kicked in,” Gabbard told CNN. “This is a real threat facing Hawaii, so people got this message on their phones, and they thought, ‘Fifteen minutes, we have 15 minutes before me and my family could be dead.’ ”
Less than two months ago, Hawaii reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea. Tests of the sirens were scheduled to be conducted on the first business day of every month for the foreseeable future. There were no planned tests for the cellphone alerts, similar to those sent out to warn of dangerous weather.
The siren tests were an audible example of the growing tension with North Korea, which has spooked other communities in the still-hypothetical line of fire. Guam distributed a pamphlet on nuclear attack preparedness that encouraged people to avoid using conditioner, “as it will bind the toxins to your hair.” A 16-page bulletin released by emergency management authorities in California warned people to beware of radioactive pets.
Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the protocol is typically as follows: The agency receives a message on a special line from the U.S. Pacific Command saying that there is a verified threat. There’s a checklist the agency goes through to make sure the alert from U.S. Pacific Command is accurate. Then a human triggers an alarm for phone and television; a separate person triggers the nuclear warning siren, which did not go off Saturday.
On Saturday, Rapoza said someone mistakenly triggered the cellphone and television alert during a shift change.
“We rely on the ability of the public to believe in us. Our credibility is vital, and we are going to do whatever we can to make sure this never happens again,” Rapoza said. “We should have been able to cancel the alert immediately. It shouldn’t have taken that long. So we are going through our processes and procedures to figure out where that went wrong.”
U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii received notification of the false alert almost immediately and was confronted with the problem of how to handle it. Army Lt. Col. Derrick Cheng, a PACOM spokesman, said that once the military confirmed that there was no incoming fire, it still needed to confer with Hawaii state officials before issuing messages about the incident to make sure it was not confusing the issue even more.
“We had to go through the appropriate checks and balances,” Cheng said. “We at PACOM still need to confirm exactly what happened and work with our state departments on that.”
PACOM tweeted at 8:48 a.m. that there was no threat and that the alert transmitted by the Hawaii state government “was sent in error.” That was 40 minutes after the alert was initially broadcast.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), acknowledging the heightened tensions, criticized the wayward cellphone messages and vowed to investigate how such a mistake occurred.
“At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to community is accurate,” Hirono tweeted Saturday. “We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again.”
Even as information was scarce, there were calls on Twitter for anyone who was responsible for sending the message in error to be held accountable.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said the false alarm was based on “a human error.”
“There is nothing more important to Hawai‘i than professionalizing and fool-proofing this process,” Schatz tweeted Saturday.
He added in a subsequent tweet: “What happened today is totally inexcusable. The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”
Still, others were puzzled by the alerts. More than two dozen vacationers had just departed from the town of Lahaina in Maui on a morning whale-watching excursion when their cellphones sounded with the alarm that a ballistic missile was inbound and that they should “seek immediate shelter.”
The captain, calmly and almost cheerily, announced he was turning around the catamaran, without describing the precise threat.
“I think we might be better out there,” he said, pointing out to sea. “But my boss said we should return and seek shelter.”
Back on shore, there was no panic, just vacationers and others wondering why there was no immediate coverage on restaurant televisions or local radio.
“There’s no information,” said Jimmy Lee, 54, a visitor from San Diego. “What do we do?”
An officer at a local police station advised that the alert was a mistake. When the all-clear was sounded, several tourists left the police station and returned home. There would be no whale sightings on this day.
Courtney Teague, Dan Lamothe, Dan Beyers, Gene Park, Josh Dawsey, Paul Kane and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this article.