PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It was a false alarm, but the fear and panic was very real.
Just after 8 a.m. Saturday, smartphones across Hawaii began displaying the message, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The message sent residents and tourists into a full-blown panic, bracing for a missile that never came.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted about 10 minutes later that there was no threat and a revised push alert was sent out some time after that.
Former Eyewitness News employee Stephanie Chalfant said she was on a snorkeling trip about five miles out to sea when she received the initial alert.
“You feel very helpless, and no one ever wants to feel helpless,” recalled Chalfant, who moved to Hawaii several years ago.
“It’s us and a bunch of tourists and we’re laughing and having a good time,” she continued. “All of a sudden the radio stops and starts beeping, ‘warning, warning, this is not a drill.’ We all look at the captain and his face is white.”
Hawaii Emergency Management officials said an employee clicked the wrong button, twice. He was supposed to select the option for a drill but inadvertently chose the real thing.
Chalfant’s boat went further out to sea until they heard it was a false alarm more than 30 minutes later.
The employee who hit the button has since been reassigned, according to state officials.
“I’m sure he feels horrible,” Chalfant added. “I can’t even imagine being in this person’s shoes who had done this. He must feel awful.”
Chalfant said they will now make sure they’re prepared in case the next alarm isn’t a mistake.
“Make sure we have a route that we’re going to go to, a place that we’re going to go to with enough food and water,” she said.
Hawaii officials said some changes have already been made to the emergency alert process. For instance, the system now requires two people to send out an alert and it’s now easier to cancel a false alert.