Residents of Hawaii – informed for 38 minutes that they were under attack from a ballistic missile – were forced to make desperate decisions about how to spend what people believed might be their last moments alive.
As relief turned to fury after it was confirmed the warning sent to people’s mobiles phones by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was an error, stories emerged of people trying to contact their loved ones, rushing to take shelter or trying to protect their children. People said they could not understand why it had taken so long to correct the mistake.
“My friend in Hawaii got the alert and had to quickly choose between which members of his family he would spend his last moments on Earth with because they were ALL too far apart from each other. He had to make the difficult choice of going immediately to his youngest children,” Gene Park wrote on Twitter.
Mr Park, who works for the Washington Post and lives in the nation’s capital, shared a post from his friend which read: “Right now, I’m in tears, pulled over on Bishop Street. Just five minutes before warning, I dropped my oldest at the airport and drove to Nimitz Zippys. There I found out about the threat and had to decide whether to shelter there, drive to my two younger children at home, go back to the airport or go to be with my wife at work.”
Video recorded from the University of Hawaii showed crowds of people running in panic after the warning was sent out early on Saturday morning.
Governor David Ige, said on CNN that the warning had been sent in error during a change in shift. He said an investigation was underway.
“I was awakened by the alert like everyone else here in the state of Hawaii. It was unfortunate and regrettable. We will be looking at how we can improve the procedures so it doesn’t happen again.”
CNN journalist Jake Tapper wrote that he knew someone in Hawaii who had been “crying in closet texting goodbyes to loved ones, husband shielding their baby”. He added: “Sounds traumatic. Hang in there, folks.”
Sara Donchey, a journalist from Texas, posted that she was in Hawaii when she also got the warning.
“This was my phone when I woke up just now. I’m in Honolulu, #Hawaii and my family is on the North Shore,” she wrote.
“They were hiding in the garage. My mom and sister were crying. It was a false alarm, but betting a lot of people are shaken.”
She added: “Also, my husband was on a plane that had just departed #Hawaii when we got the missile alert. I’ve been wondering if he and others flying were made aware. He’s on a flight with spotty or no internet service & I haven’t been able to reach him.”
The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones just before 8.10am, said in capital letters: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted that there was threat about 10 minutes later. But a revised push alert stating there was no threat did not go out for almost 40 minutes.
The incident prompted the Pentagon and the US Pacific Command to issue the same statement, that they had “detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii”.
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US 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”.
Reuters said Richard Ing, a Honolulu-based lawyer, was doing a construction project at home when his wife told him about the alert. They later were told it was a false alarm.
“I thought to myself, it must be someone’s last day at work or someone got extremely upset at a superior and basically did this as a practical joke,’ he said.
“But I think it’s a very serious problem if it wasn’t that, or even it was, it shows that we have problems in the system that can cause major disruption and panic and anxiety among people in Hawaii.”
The false alarm came against the backdrop of nuclear tension between the US and North Korea, with both Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un swapping insults.
North Korea, which has been increasing the number of missile tests, has threatened to unleash his country’s growing missile weapon capability against the US territory of Guam or US states, while Mr Trump has threatened to totally destroy the country.
The state last year reinstated a Second World War-style missile warning system amid fears of an attack by North Korea. The sirens did not sound when the erroneous text alert was issued.