HONOLULU — A false alarm that warned of 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.
In a conciliatory news conference later in the day, Hawaii officials apologized for the mistake and vowed 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.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige apologized for the “pain and confusion” caused by the alert.
Saiki, the House speaker, said the system Hawaii 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 panic.
“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” he said in a statement.
Hawaii emergency management official: "When I heard this today, I thought something was wrong. It was a false alarm, mainly because the tensions were not there to start something like this … This is not going to happen again." pic.twitter.com/Wlqrzillxh
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 13, 2018
For nearly 40 minutes, it seemed like the world was about to end in Hawaii, an island paradise already jittery over the threat of nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea.
The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m., said: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The government hit Hawaii with the fattest "nvm jk lol". pic.twitter.com/005shn9CZ1
— Dane (@MrDaneO) January 13, 2018
Welcome to hawaii, where it takes 38 minutes to tell everyone it was a mistake 🤦🏻♂️😂 pic.twitter.com/bfA5vivDdA
— Andy Thammavongsa (@Whooisandy76) January 13, 2018
On the H-3, a major highway north of Honolulu, vehicles sat empty after drivers left them to run to a nearby tunnel after the alert showed up, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Workers at a golf club huddled in a kitchen fearing the worst.
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.”
Michael Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command are still trying to verify what happened in Hawaii — but that “NORAD did not see anything that indicated any sort of threat to Hawaii.”
NORAD is a U.S.-Canada joint command that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning to defend North America.
The White House said President Donald Trump, who is in Florida, was briefed on the false alert. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said it “was purely a state exercise.”
The alert caused a tizzy on the island 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. The tournament staff urged the media center to evacuate. A local radio show from the clubhouse, next to glass windows that overlook the Pacific, kept broadcasting. Staff members at the club streamed into the clubhouse and tried to seek cover in the locker room, which was filled with the players’ golf bags, but instead went into the kitchen.
Several players took to Twitter.
“Just woke up here in Hawaii to this lovely text. Somebody can verify this?” tweeted Emiliano Grillo of Argentina.
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.”
BREAKING VIDEO: Footage shows children being placed into storm drains immediately after Emergency Ballistic Missile Warning was sent to residents in Hawaii. pic.twitter.com/PJ2xzvJdLL
— The Anon Journal (@TheAnonJournal) January 13, 2018
In Honolulu, Jaime Malapit, owner of a hair salon, texted his clients that he was canceling their appointments and was closing his shop for the day. He said he was still in bed when the phone started going off “like crazy.” He thought it was a tsunami warning at first.
“I woke up and saw a missile warning and thought ‘no way.’ I thought ‘No, this is not happening today,'” Malapit said.
He was still “a little freaked out” and feeling paranoid even after hearing it was a false alarm.
Richard Ing, a Honolulu attorney, was doing a construction project at home when his wife told him about the alert.
He dug his phone out and had confirmed he had the same alert. Attempts to find further information on the television or radio didn’t provide further information, but then he saw on Twitter that it was a false alarm.
While he was trying to confirm, his wife and children were preparing to evacuate in case they needed to move to safer ground.
Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted the false alarm was “totally inexcusable” and was caused by human error.
“There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process,” he wrote.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai also took to social media to announce the panel would launch an investigation.