Camryn Fujita SC ’21 had just come home after watching the sunrise Jan. 13 when she got the notification. At 8:09 a.m., her phone lit up with these words:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
“It was a feeling of utter helplessness, isolation, and fear,” Fujita said. “I thought I was going to die that day.”
Though there wasn’t actually a missile speeding towards Hawaii, an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) thought there was. According to The Washington Post, this individual confused a drill for an imminent attack and sent out the alert, causing widespread alarm across the Hawaiian islands.
Because she didn’t hear any sirens, Fujita’s mom began flipping rapidly through news stations and TV channels but found only regular programming. Still, the cell phone alert was more than enough to cause panic.
Fujita called her grandparents and texted all of her friends.
“It was awful, because everyone was saying ‘I love you’ like it was the last time we were going to talk to each other,” Fujita said. “What really hit me was when my mom was trying to reach my dad via text and he told her to tell me that he loved me.”
Dayanita McCutcheon SC ’21 was the first to read the alert on her phone while her family was in a car with no shelter or protection close at hand. While the news and shock sunk in, nearby cars began recklessly speeding, desperate to find an exit on the freeway, she said.
Maj. Gen. Arthur Logan, the director of HI-EMA, contacted the U.S. Pacific Command and learned the alert was false two minutes after it was sent. He immediately got in touch with Gov. David Ige, but residents of Hawaii were left in the dark for 38 agonizing minutes, according to The Washington Post.
Ana Lavongtheung SC ’21 was in Claremont warming up for a rugby game at the time of the notification. Eight minutes after the alert was sent, she opened her phone to a flurry of phone calls and texts from her friends and family on Maui.
Gutted by the prospect of losing loved ones, Lavontheung’s only comfort was her brother’s hope that, because no strike had occurred by that point, the message was a mistake.
“It honestly just felt incredibly unreal, because in Hawaii we never really thought it would happen and for that split moment, it was happening,” Lavongtheung said.
Ten minutes after residents received residents received the initial alert, HI-EMA and Hawaiian politicians posted on Facebook and Twitter that the alert was false, according to The Washington Post. However, many people did not find out there was no danger until 8:45 a.m. when a new cell phone notification was sent out, reading “False Alarm. There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii.”
In the aftermath of the incident, HI-EMA’s administrator, Vern Miyagi, took full responsibility and resigned. The employee who sent the alert was fired.
The agency also implemented measures to prevent similar missteps in the future, such as requiring a two-person confirmation process to send an alert and adding a pre-programmed cancellation alert.
The incident left many wondering whether people would have been prepared for a real missile attack.
Kyla Smith SC ’20, who was in Claremont at the time of the alert, found out about it after her family and others in Hawaii already knew it was false.
What Smith found most troubling was residents’ lack of knowledge about protocol. Where were they supposed to seek shelter? How long would they have to prepare before impact? How would they be able to communicate with others?
“I realized that if the threat had been real, there was really honestly nothing we could have done,” McCutcheon said. “In that moment, the only thought on my mind was that if I died, at least I would die with my family.”
At a time when U.S. tensions with North Korea — which has the capability to target Hawaii with a missile — are heightened and the threat of war seems less theoretical, Fujita believes that proper knowledge of emergency protocol is essential.
“I think it is a good wake-up call for our local government and the rest of the island and across the nation that we need to know what to do in the case of a real threat,” Fujita said. “It’s sometimes easy to dismiss North Korea as a big joke, but that experience was definitely one of the worst moments of my life.”