Hawaii false alarm sparks panic, confusion

false emergency alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile caused massive panic in Hawaii on Saturday, as terrified people scrambled to find shelter and prepared for what they thought might be their final moments.

U.S. and state officials worked hurriedly to recall the mobile alert and assure residents that there was no missile rocketing toward the islands. 

But for nearly 40 minutes, panic and confusion overtook a state already on edge as a result of boiling tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

Social media users shared their experiences and confusion online. Some said they sent final goodbyes and "I love yous" to family and friends before finding the alert was a mistake. 

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"This is a real threat facing Hawaii, so people got this message on their phones and they thought: 15 minutes, we have 15 minutes before me and my family could be dead," Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (D-Hawaii) told CNN. 

The alert spread quickly across the state. Not only did it appear on mobile devices, it was broadcast on television and radio and appeared on electronic road signs as people tried to find shelter. 

Sara Donchey, an anchor for KPRC 2 in Houston, was in Honolulu, Hawaii's capital, when the alert went out. She shared a screenshot of her iPhone showing worried text messages in response to the warning. 

Exactly how and why the notification was sent out remains unclear. Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, told CNN that it was done in error. An emergency employee had "pushed the wrong button" during a shift change, he said.

The White House said that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFauci says his meetings with Trump have 'dramatically decreased' McEnany criticizes DC mayor for not imposing earlier curfew amid protests Stopping Israel's annexation is a US national security interest MORE had been briefed on the incident, and that the false alert was "purely a state exercise."

In a news conference, Vern Miyagi, the administrator of Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency, took the fall for the alert, saying that it is his responsibility to oversee the system for such notifications and that the agency would take steps to prevent the mistake from happening again. 

"It's my responsibility, so this would be my fault," Miyagi said.

Lawmakers responded swiftly to the error. Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDemocratic senator to offer amendment halting 'military weaponry' given to police This week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues MORE (D-Hawaii) called the mistake "inexcusable" and demanded "tough and quick accountability."

In an interview with CNN, Schatz recalled the panic that swept the state after the notification went out.

"People were terrified, children were sheltering in place in locker rooms, people were crying, businesses were shutting down. Everybody didn't know what to do," he said. "The anxiety we went through was real and terrifying across the state of Hawaii."

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoFederal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Conservative group launches campaign accusing Democrats of hypocrisy on Kavanuagh, Biden MORE (D-Hawaii) said that, because of heightened tensions with North Korea, it was particularly important for emergency alert systems to be accurate, and that officials needed to look into the false alert.

Not long after officials had recalled the alert, the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation into the matter.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have ratcheted up over the past year amid advances in the isolated Asian country's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

At the same time, Trump has frequently traded barbs and threats with top officials in Pyongyang. He vowed last year to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea if it continued to threaten the U.S. and its allies, and used a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September to warn that he would "totally destroy" the country if provoked.

That rhetoric, combined with demonstrated milestones in the country's weapons programs, has put Hawaii on particularly high alert. In November, the state brought back into use its nuclear warning siren — a Cold War-era tool intended to notify residents of an impending strike. 

It’s estimated an intercontinental ballistic missile launched from North Korea would take up to 20 minutes to travel to Hawaii, with the public receiving a warning about 12 minutes beforehand.