A 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.
"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 GabbardProgressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition YouTube rival Rumble strikes deals with Tulsi Gabbard, Glenn Greenwald 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.
Electronic signs displaying this in Honolulu right now pic.twitter.com/Tln9HLNg4g— Anthony Quintano (@AnthonyQuintano) January 13, 2018
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.
This was my phone when I woke up just now. I'm in Honolulu, #Hawaii and my family is on the North Shore. 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. @KPRC2 pic.twitter.com/m6EKxH3QqQ— Sara Donchey (@KPRC2Sara) January 13, 2018
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 TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results 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 SchatzPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Hotel workers need a lifeline; It's time to pass The Save Hotel Jobs Act Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Scientists potty train cows to cut pollution 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 Hirono11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee Senate Democrats to Garland: 'It's time to end the federal death penalty' 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.
Today’s alert was a false alarm. At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to the community is accurate. We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again.— Senator Mazie Hirono (@maziehirono) January 13, 2018
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.