Fake missile alarm for Hawaii causes widespread panic

Vern Miyagi (left), the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator, and Hawaii Governor David Ige addressed the media on Saturday.
George F. Lee /The Star-Advertiser/AP
Vern Miyagi (left), the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator, and Hawaii Governor David Ige addressed the media on Saturday.

An early-morning emergency alert mistakenly warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack was dispatched to cellphones across Hawaii on Saturday, setting off widespread panic in a state that was already on edge because of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.

The alert, sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was revoked nearly 40 minutes after it was issued, prompting confusion over why it was released — and why it took so long to rescind. State officials and residents of a normally tranquil part of the Pacific, as well as tourists swept up in the panic, immediately expressed outrage.

“What happened today was totally unacceptable,” Governor David Y. Ige said. “Many in our community were deeply affected by this. I am sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced.”


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, said Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the agency.

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“Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer,” he said.

State officials said that the agency and the governor began posting notices on Facebook and Twitter announcing the mistake, but that a flaw in the alert system delayed sending out a cellphone correction. As a result, they said a “cancellation template” would be created to make it easier to fix mistaken alerts. A new procedure was instituted Saturday requiring two people to sign off before any such alert is sent.

At no time, officials said, was there any indication that a nuclear attack had been launched on the United States. The Federal Communications Commission announced that it had begun “a full investigation into the FALSE missile alert in Hawaii.”

The alert went out at 8:10 a.m., lighting up phones of people still in bed, having coffee by the beach at a Waikiki resort, or up for an early surf. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” it read.


Hawaii has been on high emotional alert — it began staging monthly air-raid drills, complete with sirens, in December — since President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, began exchanging nuclear threats. Estimates vary, but it would take a little more than half an hour for a missile launched from North Korea to reach Hawaii. State officials said residents here would have as few as 12 minutes to find shelter once an alert was issued.

Within moments of the first announcement, people flocked to shelters, crowding highways in scenes of terror and helplessness. Emergency sirens wailed in parts of the state, adding to the panic.

Phil Pham, a native of Peabody, Mass., was eating breakfast outside the Hyatt Regency Maui with his new wife, Katie, when they got the alert. A waitress rushed to tell them to take shelter.

“We rushed inside, ran to our hotel room, and grabbed what we needed,” Pham said of the couple, who were married Monday in Hawaii and are spending their honeymoon there.

An announcement over the resort’s loudspeaker instructed guests to go to the hotel’s lobby. They were then directed to the basement below the kitchen area.


The couple, who now live in San Francisco, thought of the 60 family and friends, many of them from Massachusetts, who had traveled to Hawaii for their wedding Jan. 8.

“At first, it feels like a dream,” said Pham, recalling the first terrifying moments. “Could this happen to me? Is this really happening right now?”

Matt LoPresti, a state representative, told CNN that he and his family headed for a bathroom. “I was sitting in the bathtub with my children, saying our prayers,” he said.

Natalie Haena, 38, of Honolulu said she was getting ready to take her daughter to ice skating lessons when the alert came. “There’s nothing to prep for a missile coming in,” she said. “We have no bomb shelters or anything like that. There’s nowhere to go.”

In Washington, Lindsay Walters, a deputy press secretary, said Trump had been informed of the events. “The president has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise,” she said. “This was purely a state exercise.”

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the mistake was “totally inexcusable.”

“The whole state was terrified,” he said. “There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”

While the cellphone alerting system is in state authorities’ hands, the detection of missile launches is the responsibility of the US Strategic Command and Northern Command. It was the military — not Hawaiian officials — that was the first to declare there was no evidence of a missile launch.

The false alert was a stark reminder of what happens when the old realities of the nuclear age collide with the speed — and the potential for error — inherent in the internet age. The alert came at one of the worst possible moments — when tension with North Korea has been at one of the highest points in decades, and when Kim’s government has promised more missile tests and threatened an atmospheric nuclear test.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has been holding “are you ready” drills.

The fifth page of an emergency preparation pamphlet issued by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency features a picture of a rocket lifting off: “Nuclear Threat — Unlikely But Cannot Ignore It.”

Vern T. Miyagi, the administrator of the agency, said that during the drill, an employee — whom he did not identify — mistakenly pushed a button on a computer screen to send out the alert, rather than one marked to test it. He said the employee answered “yes” when asked by the system if he was sure he wanted to send the message.

Material from Globe staff was used in this report.