HONOLULU, Hawaii — A push alert that came across Sally Stuart’s phone a little after 8 a.m. made an otherwise forgettable Saturday morning anything but.
Stuart, a Quincy native living in a large condominium in the heart of downtown Honolulu with her husband James, received the panic-inducing alert that indicated to Hawaiians that a ballistic missile was heading their way, but for whatever reason, James’s phone didn’t receive the message.
Hawaii officials apologized repeatedly and said the alert was sent when someone hit the wrong button during a shift change. They vowed to ensure it would never happen again.
“We made a mistake,” said Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi.
For nearly 40 minutes, it seemed like the world was about to end in Hawaii, an island paradise already jittery over the threat of nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea.
The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones just before 8:10 a.m., said in all caps, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
“We didn’t know what to do,” Stuart said. “It was really scary. We didn’t immediately take action. We were stunned.”
The lack of sirens outside was eerie in the wake of such a message. The couple flipped through TV channels but couldn’t find any reports.
After 13 minutes, security came over the building’s intercom system, describing the alert as “fake news,” which only added to the couple’s confusion.
“We questioned that,” Stuart said, “because we couldn’t find anything on TV. I didn’t think it was funny at all.”
Initially interpreting security’s use of the phrase “fake news” to mean the alert was some sort of bad joke, they later found out the alert was sent by mistake through TV reports.
The incident prompted defense agencies including the Pentagon and the U.S. Pacific Command to issue the same statement, that they had “detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.” The White House said President Donald Trump, who is in Florida, was briefed on the false alert. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said it “was purely a state exercise.”
Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki said the system Hawaii residents have been told to rely on failed miserably. He also took emergency management officials to task for taking 30 minutes to issue a correction, prolonging panic. On the H-3, a major highway north of Honolulu, vehicles sat empty after drivers left them to run to a nearby tunnel after the alert showed up, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Workers at a golf club huddled in a kitchen fearing the worst.
“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” Saiki said in a statement.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai also took to social media to announce the panel would launch an investigation.
For the Stuarts, who have lived in Hawaii since 1983 and have experienced massively destructive events before — they lived through Hurricane Iniki in 1992, the largest hurricane to ever strike Hawaii — the mistake was a bit of a wake-up call.
“What would you do in that situation?” Stuart asked herself later in the day.
Like other Hawaii residents, they have been briefed on how to respond to the threat of missiles striking the island chain. They have a plan in place for how to respond — which includes shutting the sliding glass doors that face the harbor, shuttering the heavy blackout drapes and evacuating into the hallway.
“It’s a preview of what didn’t happen, but what could have,” Stuart said. “We’re on edge, but we are not going to panic.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.