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story.lead_photo.caption This smartphone screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018.

HONOLULU -- A false alarm about a ballistic missile headed for Hawaii sent the islands into a panic Saturday, with people abandoning cars in a highway and preparing to flee their homes until officials said the cellphone alert was a mistake.

Nevertheless, the messages alarmed many in a state where fears of an attack by North Korea have been heightened in recent months.

The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m. Hawaii time, said in all capital letters: "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

In a conciliatory news conference later in the day, Hawaii officials apologized for the mistake and promised to ensure it will never happen again.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi said the error happened when someone hit the wrong button.

"We made a mistake," said Miyagi.

On the H-3, a major highway north of Honolulu, vehicles sat empty after drivers abandoned them and ran to a nearby tunnel when the alert showed up, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Workers at a golf club huddled in a kitchen, fearing the worst.

Professional golfer Colt Knost, staying at Waikiki Beach during a PGA Tour event, said "everyone was panicking" in the lobby of his hotel.

"Everyone was running around like, 'What do we do?'" he said.

Richard Ing, a Honolulu attorney, was doing a construction project at home when his wife told him about the alert. His wife and children prepared to evacuate while he tried to figure out what was happening.

Cherese Carlson, who was in Honolulu for a class and away from her children, said she called to make sure they were inside after getting the alert.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, this is it. Something bad's about to happen, and I could die,'" she said.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted that there was no threat about 10 minutes after the initial alert, but that didn't reach people who aren't on the social media platform. A revised alert informing of the "false alarm" didn't reach cellphones until 38 minutes later about 8:45 a.m., according to the time stamp on images people shared on social media.

"There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii," the follow-up alert read, according to screen-shots of the message. "Repeat. False Alarm."

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, at his private club in Florida, was briefed on the false alert. White House spokesman Lindsay Walters said it "was purely a state exercise." Officials in Hawaii did not characterize the errant alarm as part of any drill or exercise.

A senior U.S. official told The Washington Post that Trump was at the golf course at Mar-a-Lago when the alarm was sounded and knew "soon after" that it had been determined as false. Deputy national security adviser Ricky Waddell briefed Trump, who also spoke to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

State House Speaker Scott Saiki said the system Hawaii's 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 the panic.

"Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations," he said in a statement.

"While I am thankful this morning's alert was a false alarm, the public must have confidence in our emergency alert system," Gov. David Ige tweeted Saturday. "I am working to get to the bottom of this so we can prevent an error of this type in the future."

Officials said the alert was the result of human error and not the work of hackers or a foreign government. The mistake occurred during a shift-change drill that takes place three times a day at the emergency command post, according to Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the agency. He said a new procedure was put in place hours after the mistake, requiring two-step authentication before any such alert is sent out.

Miyagi said a rule has already been put in place to mandate that two people be present before the button is pushed to alert for a drill or emergency. He also said a cancellation message template will be created for such an error scenario so a delay like Saturday's does not happen again.

"We rely on the ability of the public to believe in us. Our credibility is vital and we are going to do whatever we can to make sure this never happens again," Rapoza said. "We should have been able to cancel the alert immediately. It shouldn't have taken that long. So we are going through our processes and procedures to figure out where that went wrong."

Rapoza said he did not know if anyone would be disciplined for the mistake. "At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public," he said. "This is not a time for pointing fingers."


The alert caused a tizzy on the islands and across social media.

At the PGA Tour's Sony Open on Oahu, Waialae Country Club was largely empty, and players were still a few hours from arriving when the alert showed up. Workers streamed into the clubhouse to take cover in the locker room, but it was filled with the players' golf bags so instead they went to the kitchen.

Several players took to Twitter. Justin Thomas, the PGA Tour player of the year, tweeted, "To all that just received the warning along with me this morning ... apparently it was a 'mistake'?? hell of a mistake!! Haha glad to know we'll all be safe."

Ing, the Honolulu lawyer, tried to find some humor in the situation.

"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."

Other people were outraged. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted that the false alarm was "totally inexcusable" and was caused by human error. "There is nothing more important to Hawai'i than professionalizing and fool-proofing this process," Schatz tweeted.

"There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process," he wrote.

On CNN, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said she received the alert, called Hawaii officials right away and confirmed that it was "an inadvertent message that was sent out."

"You can only imagine what kicked in," Gabbard told CNN. "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."

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, acknowledging the heightened tensions, admonished the wayward cellphone messages and vowed to investigate how such a mistake occurred.

"At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to community is accurate," Hirono tweeted Saturday. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again."

Wireless emergency alerts are usually sent during critical emergency situations and are a partnership between the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the wireless industry.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said on social media that the panel would launch an investigation.

Information for this article was contributed by Audrey McAvoy, Jennifer Kelleher, Caleb Jones, Doug Ferguson, Mark Thiessen, Jim Anderson, Jay Reeves and Tom Strong of The Associated Press; by Amy B Wang, Dan Lamothe, Greg Miller, Brittany Lyte, Dan Beyers, Paul Kane, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and staff members of The Washington Post; and by Adam Nagourney, David E. Sanger and Johanna Barr of The New York Times.

Photo by AP Photo/Caleb Jones
This smartphone screen capture shows the retraction of a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz says the false alarm about a missile threat was based on "human error" and was "totally inexcusable."

A Section on 01/14/2018

Print Headline: Alert sets off Hawaii panic

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  • Foghorn
    January 14, 2018 at 5:51 a.m.

    This article is misleading in that it doesn’t clarify that Trump continued to play golf throughout the 40 minutes between when the alert was received and when it was determined to be in error. He probably doesn’t realize Hawaii is part of the US. And he still hasn’t issued a statement.

  • MaxCady
    January 14, 2018 at 1:52 p.m.

    LOL! somebody hit the wrong button on the computer!! That's the funniest thing I've heard in a while!

  • wildblueyonder
    January 14, 2018 at 5:33 p.m.

    At least they know it works.