It began on a bright January morning. As with many on the Hawaiin Islands, this was a Saturday that promised plenty of sun, sand and surf. But any notion that this particularly Saturday would be like any other was cruelly obliterated at precisely 8.07 am on 13th January 2018, when cell phones around Hawaii began beeping with an emergency broadcast message, that simply read,
Ballistic Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.
Similar messages began appearing on television and radio stations. Frenzied panic swept the islands as people raced for cover with many even calling loved ones to wish them farewell. 38 minutes later, at 8.45 am, a second message clarifying that the first had been an error was sent out, bringing to an end one of the most extraordinary and terrifying events in living memory.
As the terror finally subsided, those on the Hawaiin Islands began piecing their shattered emotions back together. It would be several days until a clear explanation of what had happened emerged, but for many in Hawaii, the text message that heralded the end, and the 38 minutes that followed, won’t be forgotten easily.
For most around the world, the threat of a missile attack, be it nuclear or conventional, is so unlikely, the thought has all but disappeared – but it certainly wasn’t always like that. You need only go back fifty years when the threat of nuclear destruction hung ominously, particularly in the United States.
The U.S may have wrestled with the Soviet Union to be the top nuclear dog, but it was accompanied by widespread fear of a devastating nuclear attack. When the U.S was joined by the Soviets at the nuclear table in 1949, it kickstarted a period of paranoia that extended until the end of the Cold War.
Nuclear strike drills became a common occurrence in schools across the United States as an entire generation grew up under the spectre of the mushroom cloud. The Duck and Cover method, which I believe sounds quite self-explanatory, emerged in the early 1950s and was famously included in a short children’s film where Bert the Turtle showed children exactly what to do in the event of the Soviet Union dropping a nuclear bomb.
The efficacy of the Duck and Cover method has long been debated, with factors like the size and strength of the bomb needed to be taken into account. But considering the types of nuclear war models that both the U.S and the USSR had put in place, a single strike would have almost certainly set off a catastrophic series of events. If you lived in Washington DC when a full-scale nuclear war began, no amount of ducking and covering would have saved you.
Nuclear drills fell out of fashion during the 1980s as tension with the Soviet Union eased and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 appeared to have finally closed the door on the terrifying possibility of nuclear war.
The Man From North Korea
Something that certainly contributed to the terror that swept Hawaii on 13th January was the lingering fear to the east. In a perfectly peaceful world where fear-mongering stories aren’t continuously blasted across all types of media and dictators don’t have nuclear weapons, an incoming missile attack alert would have come out of the blue. But a steady build-up of fear surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program already had people on edge by early January 2018.
The fact that a rogue nation has nuclear weapons should certainly be of concern, but most experts have consistently put the likelihood of North Korea attacking the U.S unprovoked as incredibly low. But as the author of World War Z, Max Brooks, once said, “fear is primal, fear sells”.
I don’t want to be too dismissive of the man from North Korea because, in reality, we have very little idea of the inner workings of his mind, but have you ever noticed how we always seem to find ourselves facing a new enemy? After Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump began trading barbs like petulant school children, conversations and articles quickly began appearing around the United States discussing all aspects of this hypothetical war with North Korea. Would Jong-un begin by using his vast arsenal of chemical weapons? Or would he just start sending his 50 nukes straight away and just hope for the best? Suddenly images showing blast radiuses and death counts in the millions were plastered across television and people’s phones as the fear of this hypothetical media-driven nuclear war captured people’s imagination.
But this fear was definitely backed up by some very real-world events. Not least North Korea’s 16 missile tests in 2017 alone. These varied from Short Range Ballistic Missiles to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, perhaps capable of hitting anywhere within the continental U.S – and certainly the Hawaiin islands. Several of these missiles even passed over Japan, causing both fear and outrage in the land of the rising sun, with the Japanese government even sending out text messages to warn its citizens.
In Hawaii, the state tested its nuclear siren on 1st December, the first time the wail had been heard in 30 years, while the civil defence outdoor warning siren system was also tested early in January. As 2018 began, the fear of nuclear war was higher than it had been since the end of the Cold War. Some will say it’s prudent to be cautious and I won’t argue with that, but the fear of a potential event can often be worse than the event itself. And what’s worse, when fear begins to override level-headedness, mistakes are easily made.
“Exercise, exercise, exercise,”
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) brings together four county emergency management agencies, the Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense, the Maui County Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), the City and County of Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, and the Kauaʻi Emergency Management Agency. From its headquarters at the Diamond Head Crater, HI-EMA coordinates emergency responses typically for tsunamis and hurricanes – but also, in the event of a nuclear attack.
On the morning of Saturday 13th January 2018, as the shift changeover came, the overnight team was replaced by the morning staff. Now, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that for the overwhelming majority of the time, there are no emergencies for the HI-EMA to coordinate. Hawaii isn’t plagued by constant tsunamis and while hurricanes are a fairly common occurrence, most of the time the team at the HI-EMA are simply tracking ongoing events, most of which never come to anything specific.
But with so much time of relative inactivity, it’s important to keep the staff of the HI-EMA on their toes, which is why at 8.05 am on 13th January, an unplanned test drill was phoned through by a night manager pretending to be the United States Pacific Command. It began with the words, “exercise, exercise, exercise….
The details of what came next are disputed, particularly concerning the actions of the HI-EMA employee who was about to unleash a wave of panic. What is absolutely certain is that at 8.07 am, an option to send out a statewide missile threat was chosen from a drop-down menu in the HI-EMA computer system. And just like that, apocalyptical fear began raining down on Hawaii.
The End is Nye
For those who have never been confronted by a text message heralding the end of the world – myself included – it can be difficult to comprehend exactly what came next.
Across Hawaii, people reacted with panic, but also confusion. The nuclear siren, which had been tested just over a month prior, did not go off, leaving some to question the veracity of the emergency message. People began frantically calling 9/11, family or friends for confirmation, but with the state’s telephone system under sudden enormous strain, many calls and text messages failed to go through.
People have reported seeing cars on the freeways travelling over 160 km/h (100 miles per hour) as their drivers desperately tried to make it back to loved ones – or simply to a safer place than the open road. Students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa poured out towards the well-marked fallout shelters on campus, only to find them locked. Instead, they raced back to the classrooms and took shelter inside. Tourists staying at the Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe were hurried out of the resort and directed up to a concrete bunker in the mountains. Across the state, people huddled together in rooms after barring the windows and frantically filling every water jug possible. The questions of what to do and where to go seem to have been common. Some families, too far from home to return, sought refuge in restaurants or shops while groups of cars huddled for safety within tunnels.
The scene in many of Hawaii’s hotels and resorts was absolute bedlam. It became clear that few, if any, had any clear directives of what to do in such an emergency. Stories of lobbies filling up with sobbing tourists were common, with the staff doing their best to calm their terrified guests and keep them inside.
Some parents placed their children in bathtubs while desperately trying to explain the developing chaos to minds too young to understand the words, nuclear apocalypse. Many stories that day are difficult to hear as people’s worst nightmares came to bear and the acceptance that the end was coming took hold. Some who managed to get through to loved ones on the phone said their final goodbyes in a manner eerily similar to those trapped within the World Trade Centers on 9/11. It’s heartbreakingly poignant that amid all the turmoil, for many the most important thing became getting through to family members to say, I love you, and goodbye.
After the initial frantic terror, most reported settling down and waiting for what was to come, as those in Hawaii waited for the missile that would bring the end.
A Colossal Mistake
To add to the early chaos, mobile phones are not permitted within the HI-EMA, so the first the team there knew about the incorrect message was when military staff began frantically calling in from outside. If their official report on the incident is anything to go by, the man responsible sat motionless, seemingly in shock.
Almost immediately the alert was cancelled but that simply meant that any messages that hadn’t already gone through would now be blocked. Like sending a text meant for your girlfriend to your mother, there’s no way of clawing back those words. And in another painful twist, it’s now clear that the system is not set up to immediately send out a cancellation message.
It’s not clear exactly why it took so long for news that the message had been a mistake to begin circulating. Some of the earliest false alert statements came via Twitter, while electronic boards on freeways also began showing the new message. But with phone lines down, it was a horrifyingly long wait for many to receive the message telling them it had all been a mistake.
In the space of just 38 minutes, all-consuming fear turned to overwhelming relief. At 8.45 am phones around Hawaii once again began beeping as a second emergency message arrived – this time informing them that there was in fact no missile threat.
The news was met with different levels of relief. Some reported hugging their families and laughing joyously, while others simply collapsed from mental exhaustion.
After events like this, fear is quickly replaced by relief – but often shortly followed by anger. The mental trauma that people around Hawaii had experienced was not about to be quickly forgotten and the question of who was to blame was immediately asked.
The identity of the man responsible for sending out the missile threat has never been officially revealed, though that hasn’t stopped him from receiving death threats. On 30th January, Hawaii Army National Guard commander Bruce E. Oliveira released a report into the incident, in which he cited “insufficient management controls, poor computer software design, and human factors” as the principal causes.
By that point, the employee had already been fired and the report stated that the HI-EMA had had reservations about the man dating back over a decade and apparently had already twice mistaken a test drill for a real-world event.
The ex-employee, who has since given interviews with his identity withheld, disputed these claims. If they are accurate, perhaps some serious questions need to be asked regarding how the HI-EMA allowed a loose cannon of an employee to work there for over ten years. According to the man responsible for the erroneous message, when the call first came through to the HI-EMA, another employee picked up the receiver rather than placing the call on speakerphone for everybody in the room to hear. In those vital early moments, the employee missed those all-important words, “exercise, exercise, exercise” at the beginning of the call. This mistake was inflamed further when the call was placed on speakerphone and the voice on the other end said the words, “this is not a drill”.
We may never know exactly what happened in the next minute or so. It’s not clear why one employee seemed certain that this was a real-world event, while others have since said it was obvious that it was a drill. However it happened, it was a catastrophic mistake that everybody involved will remember for a long time to come. And here it’s all too easy to point fingers and assign blame, but the reality is that the employee was certain that a missile was inbound to Hawaii and reacted in exactly the way he had been trained. Had it happened the other way around and an alert not been sent out with a missile hurtling towards Hawaii – well, it’s likely that nobody would be alive to argue about it – but I think you see what I’m getting at. This was a horribly unfortunate mistake, but one that was not done maliciously.
The agency also came in for heavy criticism regarding its procedures, most notably the fact that a second person was not required to sign off on emergency messages – something that has since been changed. There has since been plenty of debate over whether it should be down to individual states to issue such warnings or whether the federal government should oversee these kinds of matters. The perineal U.S debate of states rights vs federal oversight isn’t about to end any time soon.
The End of the World
After the dust settled, many took stock of what had happened. The pandemonium that took place across Hawaii was certainly not what officials would have hoped for in the event of an emergency like this. It became entirely obvious that procedures to follow in the event of a nuclear strike were almost non-existent.
But how exactly do you prepare for the end of the world? Perhaps it’s entirely unreasonable to expect that people, who are faced with the very real possibility of a missile strike, will respond in a calm and orderly manner. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how I would have reacted.
The events of 13th January 2018 were harrowing for those involved and also highlighted humanity’s raw emotions when confronted with a potentially life-ending event. That day it was a false missile threat, but let’s not kid ourselves, whether it’s a giant tsunami, a meteor strike, a massive volcanic eruption, a black hole or even an all-consuming solar flare, we live within a finite existence that can be extinguished in the blink of an eye. We often see ourselves as indestructible, the homo sapien overlords ruling over our little planet, but in reality, we are but highly evolved animals with inflated egos.
At some point in the future, the world will end. Long before the sun gobbles us up, temperatures will have reached such levels that nothing can possibly live on Earth. There’s no need to panic, that’s still roughly a billion years away – but that particular clock is ticking. However, that’s the best-case scenario. We are ominously overdue for a supervolcano eruption, while we’ve already seen how devastating tsunamis can be. Add in the odd cataclysmic tectonic shift and things could get very dicey indeed.
The world didn’t end on 13th January 2018, but for 38 minutes, many in Hawaii assumed that annihilation was imminent. The frantic terror seen showed us just how unprepared humans can be for such an event and indeed our own mortality. What must go down in history as the most unfortunate group text message ever sent lifted the lid on our fears and anxieties regarding a potentially apocalyptic event. You can have all of the procedures and plans you want, when confronted with the end of the world, all bets are off.