Hawaii emergency officials said on Saturday an alert about an incoming ballistic missile threat that caused widespread panic was a false alarm.
The alert, which was sent to cellphones, stated there was a threat “inbound to Hawaii” and said residents should seek shelter. “This is not a drill,” it added.
Hawaiian authorities have been preparing and testing early warning systems, and residents have been urged to make emergency plans.
“Everyone’s got a plan,” said Ashly Trask, 39, who lives on the island of Kauai. “It’s very real.”
Trask’s home, like many on the islands, is constructed with single-ply walls and no basement. When the alert came, she said, she piled her mother, 15-year-old son, two-year-old daughter and partner into the car, swung by her other son’s workplace to pick him up, and then sped to her office at the botanical gardens – a building with concrete walls that is used as a hurricane shelter.
“It was definitely kind of a panic zone,” she said. “Everyone knows you have about 15 minutes until detonation, and no one knows where it will land.”
Family members on the other side of the island were too far away to get to the gardens within that 15-minute span.
“They called us and they were crying because they realized they wouldn’t have made it to us,” Trask said.
In western Oahu, people ran out of buildings into the streets, some in states of undress. According to a witness, some took shelter in the basement of a parking structure, where people cried and children huddled on rolls of fabric.
Approximately 30 minutes later, authorities said the alert was a mistake.
Many in the parking shelter hugged, cried, shook and prepared to head back outside. Others said they would remain undercover until they received confirmation from the coast guard that all was safe.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesman Richard Rapoza said it was not clear what caused the alert to go out and the agency was investigating.
The alert came as Oahu staged a 100-mile endurance run, the HURT100. Some runners sheltered under a bridge before resuming racing.
Beth Ann Brooks of Kapolei told the Guardian she was at the beach when she received the alert and raced home. She and her husband sheltered in their bathroom.
“We grabbed couch cushions and our hurricane kit and water and sat there talking to the kids and trying to calm them down,” Brooks said. “They didn’t say much. It was horrible. The fear I felt was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Jamie Malapit, owner of a Honolulu hair salon, told the Associated Press 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 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.
“I went from panic to semi panic and ‘Are we sure?”’ he said.
The US representative Tulsi Gabbard tweeted that the alert was an error, writing: “HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE.”
A White House statement said Donald Trump had been “briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise”.