Confusion and scrambling unfolded over 38 minutes after emergency management authorities warned that a ballistic missile was “INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.” It was a terror-inducing alert that ricocheted around the islands.
Neither a missile strike nor a nuclear blast happened, but there were a lot of unnecessarily jolted people across the Hawaiian Islands. Then came finger-pointing, recriminations and anger — a lot of which ended up in the inbox of a bespectacled civil servant named Jeffrey Wong.
Wong, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency operations officer, was wrongly identified by more than a few people as the button-pusher, the employee who sent out the erroneous alert about the nonexistent threat.
And in a flash, he became the latest example of just how vicious — and wildly off-target — people can be on the Internet.
Wong’s personal nightmare started when several online media organizations used an archival Associated Press photo of him to illustrate stories about the employee who actually made the Jan. 13 mistake, according to the wire service.
The photo was taken in July to illustrate an AP story about Hawaii preparing for a missile threat from North Korea.
It seems innocuous enough: A Hawaiian shirt-wearing man stands in front of a bank of computer monitors, arms placed awkwardly in front of him in a pose straight out of civil servant media training class.
But in that photo, legions of people saw something that wasn’t there: a villain.
“A lot of anger, a lot of ignorance came out as a result of that,” Wong said of the picture, according to the AP.
Some people called for Wong to be shot or waterboarded.
Others made racial remarks and questioned Wong’s loyalty to the state he works for and the country he lives in.
“Maybe Jeffrey hit the Wong Button!!!” one person said on Twitter. “Sorry but OMG how stupid can you be?? Seriously. Maybe try dog catcher there Jeffie!!! So you don’t PANIC THE ENTIRE WORLD!!!!”
The identity of the employee who actually sent the message has not been disclosed to the public.
But it wasn’t Jeffrey Wong.
“It’s very hurtful to be wrongly accused, wrongly marked as an individual that’s responsible for actions that affected, in a negative way, a lot of people within the state of Hawaii and possibly around the world,” Wong told the AP.
That negative, public image of a bumbling Wong is at odds with his actual actions during the missile threat that wasn’t: He was attending a Civil Air Patrol conference at a hotel, where he tried to hustle other guests to safety.
That conference was on Kauai; Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency is headquartered more than 100 miles away, in Honolulu on the island of Oahu.
“We appreciate your actions greatly and are grateful that you happened to be there and showed yourself to be strong, calm and positive,” Marc Tiar, who was vacationing on Kauai with his family, wrote in an email to Wong after returning home, according to the AP. “We are safe at home in Reno now, but my family and I will never forget that day or the man who made sure we would be as safe as possible.”
Before the alert, Hawaii had reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea.
There is, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said after the erroneous alert was sent, “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.’”
In the aftermath of the alert, Hawaii Emergency Management officials claimed the employee had hit the wrong button on a computer drop-down menu.
But as The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Brian Fung reported, the employee said he misunderstood that a drill was underway and believed that a ballistic missile had actually been fired at the state.
The employee had confused similar drills with the real thing at least twice before, investigators found. The mix-ups had worried his co-workers for more than a decade. The Emergency Management Agency’s top official, Vern T. Miyagi, resigned last month after taking “full responsibility for the incident.”
The state employee responsible for sending out the alert was fired and told NBC News last week that he had deep regrets about what happened.
“I feel very badly from what’s happened,” the man said.
“The panic, the stress people felt, all the hurt and pain. I felt that myself,” said the man, who was not named or shown fully during the interview that aired on NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt.”
The man repeated claims that officials in Hawaii released: That he heard “this is not a drill” at some point during a training exercise and assumed that the threat of an incoming missile was real.
The incident occurred when a supervisor decided to give the arriving day-shift workers a spontaneous drill, according to a Federal Communications Commission report. The supervisor posed as a military official and played a message that warned workers of a fake threat that included the phrase “exercise,” three times, as well as “this is not a drill,” language that would be used during a real alert.
Officials also said the worker had not heard a portion of the exercise that repeatedly declared it was an “exercise.”
“I was 100 percent sure that it was the right decision, that it was real,” the man told NBC News. “I’m really not to blame in this. It was a system failure, and I did what I was trained to do.”
Holt asked the man, who was shown from the neck down and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, whether he would do anything differently if he could go back.
“I can’t say I would do anything differently based on what I saw and heard,” the man said.
The erroneous alert exposed other problems with Hawaii’s system of warning its residents about impending threats.
Seven minutes after the alert went out, officials stopped broadcasting it, Berman and Fung reported. But because there was no plan for how to handle a false alert, the agency could not issue an official correction.
Twenty-six minutes after the initial warning, officials settled on a way to inform the public that they were not facing nuclear annihilation, and workers began working on a correction.
It took another 14 minutes for the correction to be distributed.
Correction Feb. 6: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to location of the headquarters of the Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency. It is located in Honolulu on the island of Oahu, not on the island of Honolulu.
Amy B Wang contributed to this report.