False missile alarm in Hawaii causes ‘terror’ for Peabody native on honeymoon

A screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13.
Associated Press
A screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13.

Honeymooners Phil and Katie Pham were eating breakfast outdoors at a Hawaiian resort Saturday when they received a terrifying alert on their cellphones.

‘‘Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii,’’ warned an 8:07 a.m. message, written in capital letters and transmitted across the state’s cellphone networks. ‘‘Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.’’

A waitress at the Grand Hyatt Kauai rushed to tell them to take shelter.


“We rushed inside, ran to our hotel room, and grabbed what we needed,” Phil Pham, a Peabody native, said by telephone early Saturday evening.

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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. Guests young and old crowded into a tight space, he recalled.


A post shared by Katie & Phil Pham (@katieandphilpham) on

It would be nearly 40 minutes before a second alert from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency declared the message was a false alarm.

Although the alert was false — attributed to a state employee’s errant push of a button — tension between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear arsenal made a missile attack seem possible, Pham said.

“In today’s political climate, it’s a very realistic outcome that something like this could happen,” Phil said. “It’s not a movie.”


The Phams, who now live in San Francisco, were married Monday in Hawaii in front of about 60 family and friends, many of whom had traveled from Massachusetts. The group was among tens of thousands of people, many of them tourists, whose Hawaiian vacations were plunged into uncertainty by the erroneous alert.

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

Phil first told his story to WCVB-TV Boston.

As they hid in the basement, the couple tried to stay calm, he said. Phil comforted his wife, whom he met while they were students at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

They thought of their family and friends who had traveled to the Pacific island for their wedding. Many were scattered across the islands.


As he checked social media for updates, Phil said he felt “anxiety and a lot of terror.”

“At that moment, you really believe a missile is coming,” he said.

Katie, who is originally from Rochester, N.Y., sent her mother a text saying that they had taken shelter, and that she loved her, Phil said.

Phil learned it was a false alarm in a tweet from US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii’s second district.

“I didn't feel upset, I didn't feel like, ‘How dare they?’ ” Phil said. “I felt elated and felt relief that the people we know were safe, and we were safe.”

The couple, who work as graphic designers, are looking forward to a quiet rest of their honeymoon, Phil said.

“Everything about this trip has been so peaceful, so full of love and joy,” he said, “besides this one incredibly alarming thing.”

“We get to walk away with a beautiful wedding,” Pham continued. “Mistakes happen. We’re just happy to be alive.”

Material from wire services were used in this story. Martha Schick can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MarthaSchick.