The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A bomb is just minutes from destroying your world. Now what?

That morning in Hawaii, I had to decide who to text, what to say, and who to try to save.

South Korean and U.S. fighter jets fly over the Korean Peninsula during a combat exercise on Dec. 6. (South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images)
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7:40 a.m. It’s already a busy Saturday morning. I grab my iced coffee and load my oldest daughter (16) and her suitcases into the car. My wife had left just a few minutes before us, heading to her part-time office. My younger daughters (9 and 10) are sleeping in. Most of Honolulu must have had the same idea, because the roads are clear and we get to the airport in no time.

7:55 a.m. At the airport, I hug my oldest daughter, who’s off for a week in Hiroshima, Japan, as an exchange student. I tell her that I love her and to have fun.

8:05 a.m. I head to Zippy’s on Nimitz Highway to pick up breakfast for our midyear work retreat — I’m president of the American Advertising Federation Hawaii. Goals, new programs and committee staffing run through my head as I walk to the counter. Then I hear a murmur of trouble. “Bomb threat,” one of the cashiers whispers to another as I attempt to pay for 25 Portuguese sausage omelet sandwiches. But I’m only concerned that they let me finish the transaction before they clear the building. As I grab the package and run out the door, I hear the words “missile launch” as the cashiers talk to each other.

8:10 a.m. I get into my car, still not believing there’s any real problem. Almost instantly comes a message on Slack from my vice president on the AAF board: “Guys there was just a ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. Seek shelter . . . don’t worry about the meeting.” Board members start blowing up the Slack channel with updates: “No sirens where I live,” “I can’t call anyone the lines are busy.” One person claimed to have heard it on TV and radio. I haven’t seen the mobile phone alert — I had previously disabled them. (Alerts are usually about flash floods. My home and job are not in flood-prone areas. Truth is, I didn’t want to be woken up by phone sirens about heavy rain at 3 a.m.) But then a friend posts this alert on Facebook Messenger:


8:13 a.m. Research before panic, I think, and turn on the radio, Nothing! Music still playing, various radio personalities chatting, but nothing about a warning. More messages on Slack and Messenger appear. “NOT A DRILL.” Panic starts to creep in. I check Twitter and find no information.

8:15 a.m. It’s that “oh s‑‑t” moment: Four to five white Suburbans with blue lights blazing a streak behind me toward Waikiki on Nimitz Highway. I think I see federal seals on their doors as I whip my head around. Too fast, can’t tell. The lack of real information is deafening.

8:16 a.m. Phone lines are busy, so I text my daughter at the airport. She tells me they’ve heard about it but don’t know much more than I do. Now believing this is a real threat, I start weighing the devil’s options. I’ve now wasted six of the approximately 15 minutes before impact from North Korea. My family is spread all over Honolulu and probably 10 to 15 minutes away in any direction. What to do? Should I attempt to find myself shelter in the area? Do I run back to the airport? It’s probably the closest, but it’s next to Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base — probably the missile’s target.

8:17 a.m. I text my wife and oldest daughter that I love them, tear out of the parking lot and head home to my youngest daughters. It’s where I have the most family in one place and in a location in the direction away from the suspected target. I did get to hug my oldest daughter this morning, I reason, and I hope my wife will get the message and head home. I’m driving but not believing I will make it anywhere before the impact, still stopping for red lights while hitting 80 mph between them. The next three minutes are a blur of text messages and speeding.

8:20 a.m. Just a block from the freeway, I learn from friends who were sheltering in their apartment building’s stairwell that one of our news channels has confirmed that it was a mistake. Just human error. My mother calls. I tell her it’s all going to be fine, that I love her and to call my sister, who was still unaware of the all-clear status.

8:21 a.m. Manic, I turn back toward town and start sending messages on Slack. “What are we going to do with all these sandwiches?” I say. “They cost us so much money … who will eat them all …”

8:25 a.m. I pull over on Bishop Street and put the car in park before I kill someone texting and driving, just a few blocks from where the meeting was supposed to be. Smarter people than me persuade me to cancel the silly thing. The adrenaline leaves my system, and I’m broken. I sit in a blur, tears rolling down my face.

8:35 a.m. Anger at Hawaii Civil Defense pushes me to compose a Facebook post. I feel I’ve been abused. Writing it out melts any last bit of control I have left, and as I post it, I break into one of those ugly cries you wouldn’t want anyone to see, but you’re too upset to care who sees you doing it.

8:45 a.m. The next alert comes:

Emergency Alert: There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.

Hawaii residents received emergency alerts warning of a “ballistic missile threat” in the early morning of Jan. 13. It was a false alarm. (Video: Victoria Walker, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

I am enraged at Civil Defense. Then I notice the people walking down Bishop Street, clearly unaware of anything that has just happened or the choices I was just forced to make. I’m so jealous.

9:30 a.m. I text my wife, who still has not responded at this point. “I hope you were oblivious to this morning’s terror. I do love you.” Then I eat an unhealthy number of those Portuguese-sausage omelet sandwiches, down my iced coffee and drive home. I hug my two children, who were unaware of any of the terror, and give them each a sandwich.

Up until today, I had left most of my Cold War fears in the 1980s. Movies such as “The Day After” were just faded memories of boring high school films meant to stoke the fear of the masses. But I guess subconsciously we believe North Korea is capable of unleashing that much terror, because this fake alert set us spinning. I don’t know what I could have done for any family member if I could have reached them in time. Part of me believed that I was going to swoop in like Superman and cover them with my body and everything would be okay.

I’m thankful this happened so early on Saturday, when people were still at home with their families and loved ones, where they could huddle in basements, garages and stairwells; hide in storm drains; or simply sleep through it. I’m glad they were spared the 10 terrible minutes when I drove wildly through Honolulu, believing the hit was coming, choosing whom I could save and who was lost to me.