False alarm in Hawaii rattles Pacific office, tourists
Just after 8 a.m. local time Saturday, Jan. 13, hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii received the kind of electronic alert — on smartphones, on televisions, on the radio — that everyone dreads.
"Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii," the push alert on smartphones blared in all-capital letters. "Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."
As it turned out, of course, there was no missile, and there was no threat. In less than 15 minutes, one of Hawaii's congresswomen was spreading the word on social media that the alert was sent in error, followed shortly by official state accounts, including those of Gov. David Ige. But it took 38 minutes before a second push alert was sent to smartphones stating that there was no threat — and that the first alert had been a "false alarm."
Reacting to the alert
Wendy Greene, a longtime Forest Grove resident who now lives in St. Helens, was staying in a cabin at Bellows Air Force Station on Oahu with her family when she and her husband, Rich, received the initial alert on their phones Saturday morning. The family was just about to wrap up a two-week vacation in Hawaii that weekend.
"I don't know if 'surreal' is the right word," Greene recounted. "It just didn't really feel like it was happening. It was weird."
Rich Greene served in the U.S. Navy. One of his jobs was managing the nuclear arsenal aboard a submarine, Wendy Greene said. He took charge of the situation as best he could, waking the couple's teenagers and leading them to Bellows' recreation station, a few minutes' walk away.
Wendy Greene remembers feeling "panicky" for a moment as she and Rich woke the children, and then wondering why they couldn't walk faster, not knowing whether a missile was on its way to the islands or where it might strike.
"I had no idea at that point how much time we might have," she said. "We were just walking quickly. I was praying and kind of thinking, 'If this is it, then this is it.'"
On the other side of Oahu, employees were already at work at Pacific University's Hawaii office. The Forest Grove institution has longstanding ties to Hawaii; a significant minority of its student body hails from the 50th state.
Gary Pacarro, the office's director, said the sense of "uneasiness" and "angst" after the first alert was sent was encapsulated well in the news reports from Hawaii that day.
"Whatever anyone has said about it — the atmosphere, the environment, being unaware" — was true, Pacarro said.
Pacarro's first reaction was to call his wife and tell her that he loved her. After that, it was a tense 38 minutes until the alert was canceled.
"Everybody that was in the building just hunkered down and waited," said Pacarro, who graduated from Pacific in 1974. He added, "Not having answers was, I think, the hardest part."
At Bellows, Wendy Greene and her family met up with other tourists staying at the station. Rich Greene, a former military man himself, talked to security and learned that the alert had not come across any military channels. (The error, state officials later said, occurred on the civil side: an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency inadvertently clicked a couple of buttons that sent the false alert.)
"It just seemed odd," Wendy Greene said. At that point, she wasn't sure whether to believe the alert's dire warning — an inbound missile — or whether it had been a false alarm.
She added, "It happened fast and it was just really, really confusing. I don't think that I was ever sitting there thinking, 'Oh, this is my last 15 minutes.' We were pretty preoccupied with trying to figure things out and do the right thing."
Some of the eyewitness accounts and video footage from those 38 minutes between the emergency alerts Saturday morning depict scenes of panic and terror. One video appears to show students running pell-mell across a college campus in Honolulu. Another shows a frightened child being placed in a storm drain, shelter in case of an explosion and radioactive fallout.
Just as at Pacarro's office, where nervous employees sheltered in place and waited, Greene said she and the others searching for cover at Bellows mostly remained calm.
"I didn't see people panicking," she said. "I'm grateful for that, because I can see how that would really breed on each other, and people just totally, totally freak out."
Greene remarked, "I think having a retired military husband, being on a military site, having potentially a little more information than some people did … it wasn't as bad as what I heard some people went through."
On television, Greene began to see reports that the alert had indeed been a false alarm. At the Pacific office in Honolulu, Pacarro said, people began to wonder whether the threat was real after 20 minutes — the outside estimates of how long it would take an intercontinental ballistic missile fired from North Korea to reach Hawaii — passed without incident.
At 8:45 a.m. local time, the second push alert went out: "false alarm."
"Obviously, we are very relieved the alert turned out to be a false alarm," Pacific spokesman Joe Lang wrote in an email Monday, Jan. 15. "The safety and well-being of all Hawaii residents, including our many students, alumni and their extended families, are always of primary concern to the university administration."
At the Hawaii office, Pacarro said people were relieved to learn the alert had been sent in error — and upset as to how the error had happened.
But the 38-minute scare highlights a need to prepare and make plans in case the worst should happen, Pacarro remarked. He said it has made people think about what they would do if disaster really did strike.
"It's a different world that we live in," Pacarro said. Just as people plan for tsunamis and earthquakes, he said, people should plan for a nuclear attack.
Greene credits her faith and her family for keeping her calm and clear-headed during the incident.
"I just figured, if you're going to go out, you're going out together," she said. She was glad to be with her family, she added. "It made it not so scary. … I was with the people I loved."
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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