I was in Hawaii on a family holiday the day of the ballistic missile threat. The alert interrupted our breakfast at Denny’s and we returned to chaos in our hotel, where we were advised to shelter in the bathroom.
I started writing a message to loved ones which I was about to send when it was confirmed it was a false alarm. The experience shows how important it is to be aware of emergency procedures. Here’s what it was like in those 38 minutes of fear.
I woke early last Saturday, January 13, on Hawaii’s Oahu island, and went for breakfast before a snorkeling tour off Waikiki Beach.
Having swapped Sydney’s summer swelter for a family holiday in snow-covered New York, we joked that we escaped the “Bomb Cyclone” and come to Hawaii to defrost.
My sister was meant to join mum and I, but wasn’t feeling well so she stayed back at the hotel with dad.
It was around 7.45am when we walked down to Denny’s, an American style diner chain popular with tourists and locals, just across the street from the Halekulani Hotel where we were staying.
The meals came quickly and by 8.10am, I’d eaten my boiled eggs and bacon, and was waiting for mum to finish her pecan pancakes — her favourite breakfast — when I felt my phone vibrating unusually in my bag.
Its buzzing was fast and intense — something felt off about it, and when I picked up the phone and read the message my suspicions were confirmed.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
My stomach drops. I’m suddenly queasy. I spin around and quickly scan the room, to see everyone else doing the same thing, with bewildered faces.
I show the message, titled “Emergency Alert”, to mum, who’s pouring more maple syrup on her stack.
She looks at the television above us showing local news. There isn’t any breaking story, so she passes it off as a mistake.
I’m unconvinced. I start searching news sites but can’t find anything.
Our waiter approaches us and says not to worry. Cool as a cucumber, he smiles and says it’s was probably a false alarm — and if not, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.
My sister calls, freaking out, begging us to come back to the hotel.
I’m so busy trying to find more information that I stop talking to her and forget to hang up.
The restaurant manager announces everyone in the nearby area received the message and they are trying to get more information on what’s happening.
Anxious that I can’t find anything on the internet to confirm , I insist we leave immediately.
An alarm starts to sound. I think it’s coming from the street.
Mum complains she hasn’t finished her pancakes.
After a few expletives from me about how pancakes won’t matter if we’re dead, we get the bill — and a takeaway box for the half-eaten pancakes.
As I pass the cash to the guy at the register with a shaky hand, we joke about what’s going on.
He laughs nervously and says he’s only been in Hawaii for three days after moving here from Texas.
We walk back to the hotel quickly. No one is running, there is no sense of panic, but that all changes as we enter the hotel lobby. It’s pandemonium.
Bus boys are huddled at the entrance, looking at their phones and the sky.
A female staff member runs past us panicked, saying she has to get home to her kids.
In the lobby, a manager is circled by two dozen guests seeking answers. He seems to know no more than we do.
We make a beeline for the elevators to return to our rooms on the fifth floor. An Australian couple are in front of us, we talk about the craziness of the situation. As they leave the elevator we say we’ll see them later, and repeat it again, saying “we will, we will”, as if trying to convince ourselves things will be OK.
We reach our floor. A women rushes in before we can exit. She asks if it’s real. We say we think so.
She has just escaped the deadly mudslides in California. Her face is drained of colour.
Opening the door of my parents’ room, my sister is there with my dad. She has tears in her eyes, and asks question after question.
My dad is sitting on the bed watching the news. He agrees with my mother and is sure it’s a mistake.
Mum opens her pancakes and voices disappointment that there’s not enough maple syrup.
The intercom in the room crackles to life.
It sounds like the man who was trying to calm the guests in the lobby. He says this is not a drill.
We are silent.
He says they will try to provide us with further details as they get more information but for the time being we are to stay in our rooms and take shelter in the bathroom with the doors closed.
I look at my dad.
He’s not moving.
His mouth is open and he’s looking outside.
There is not a word spoken but he’s telling me all I need to know.
“We should go to the carpark,” I blurt out, breaking the silence.
No, Dad says: not a good idea in case the missile hits the ocean and there’s a tsunami. We’re next to the beach. We would drown in the carpark.
“What about a car?” I say.
He’s not listening any more, he’s too busy thinking.
My mum consoles my sister.
I start to write a text that I will send to loved ones. It was on the lines of: “Hey, I don’t want to scare you but there’s been a missile threat in Hawaii. We’re fine but we’re not sure what’s going on yet…”.
I can still hear the alarm going off somewhere.
I look outside. The sky is so blue that it’s hard to imagine anything bad could happen on a day like this.
I have a sick feeling in my stomach, and my chest feels heavy. I remember something a tour guide told us when we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. While witnesses to that terror attack all have different perspectives and stories, they all recall how blue the sky the morning of September 11, 2001.
“This is how I die,” I thought.
Before I can finish writing the text message, the manager returns over the intercom with an urgency in his voice.
At first he says only three words.
“We can confirm…”.
There is a pause that felt like an eternity.
“… That this is a false alarm.”
I don’t hear much else of what he says after that.
A wave thoughts wash over my mind: Relief. Nervousness this is another mistake. Fear a ballistic missile is really still incoming. Elated we’re still alive.
My phone buzzes again.
“There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”
38 minutes have passed.
We don’t move for a while. I pace the room half laughing and half yelling at mum that all she could care about was those goddamn pancakes.
I delete my message, and write a new one. “Don’t be worried when you hear the news… we’re all fine… Love you.”
After debating whether we should still go on the tour, unsure if it will even still be on, we decide it will be OK, and head to the beach.
The crew on the boat shout out “Welcome to ballistic missile Saturday!” Too soon? Everyone laughs anyway.
We snorkel for an hour or so and rejoin the boat to sail the length of the bay.
Talking to one of the crew members, he says they were already on the catamaran when they received the first message. He said he’d never seen so many boats flee the island from the nearby marina than in the moments after that message. People escaping while they could.
As we talk a vessel from the US Coast Guard stalks past us, surveying the island.
In the days after the false alarm we continued to talk to locals, from waiters to cab drivers, about their experiences.
Among the scariest was a story about a family that lifted a manhole cover on the road and put their children in the drain to protect them.
Overall, most people were angry, furious that it could happen, and even more upset that there is no plan in place if it was a real threat.
Personally, I agree. The whole event has provided me with a new perspective on emergency procedures.
We roll our eyes at fire drills, or feel put out when there is high security at an airport and we have to take our shoes off.
We laugh at those old “duck and cover” training clips from the Cold War.
But in moments of crisis people need a plan. They need to know where to go and what to do.
Without a plan, people panic. They feel helpless — like a sitting duck with a target on its back and no place to hide.
Never mind that it was a clumsy mistake: what happened in Hawaii would have been a complete disaster had it been the real deal — even in Hawaii, a place that knows better than anywhere else about the reality of a sudden, unexpected attack.