HAWAII —Residents of Hawaii and folks on holiday glanced at their phones Saturday morning and were greeted by an ominous message.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” said the emergency alert. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
For a few moments, the island paradise was turned upside down as people tried to figure out what to do. Minutes later, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted that the alert was a false alarm, but a second emergency alert wasn’t sent out for 38 minutes.
Some residents and visitors CNN spoke to said the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea — and the war of words between the two leaders — lent the threat additional credibility in their minds.
They said they were “terrified.” Some wondered whether they were going to die. This is how they described their experiences of the false alarm.
‘A day that just changed’
Ruth Goldbaum was on the island of Oahu with her family, visiting her son who serves in the US Navy. They were about to go boating in Kaneohe Bay, north of the island, when people began receiving the emergency alert.
“You can just imagine,” she said, “it was a day that just changed from total recreation and chill to — I wouldn’t say panic, but alarm. Close to potential panic.”
Goldbaum, 69, and the people around her — a mix of military personnel and civilians — were soon hurried into a nearby hangar, “not knowing if we’d be there for days, hours or minutes,” she said.
“Some people were saying, ‘Well, we’re going to war. Others said, ‘Let’s see what’s going on.”
About 15 minutes into the ordeal, they started seeing the tweet from US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in which she said it was a false alarm.
“Within those 15 minutes your emotions ran the gamut, from thinking we have to call people and tell them we’re safe, tell them what’s happening, saying our goodbyes,” Goldbaum told CNN.
Goldbaum said “this escalation of words” between the United States and North Korea has put the country “in a very precarious and unstable situation and anything can happen,” she said.
“Is this what the world is coming to that we have to have shelters?” she asked. “I think the only answer is diplomacy and have peace.”
‘Are we going to die?’
Jocelyn Azbell had just woken up in her hotel room when her phone started going off. She thought she was getting a phone call.
Azbell, 24, is visiting Maui with her boyfriend and his family, and when she saw the alert they went to show his parents.
At that point, an intercom at the hotel came on and told all the guests to go down into the hotel’s basement.
“You’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, are we going to die? Is it really a missile (headed) our way, or is it just a test?’ We really didn’t know,” she told CNN.
Hotel guests were “being herded like cows” into the basement, Azbell said. “People are crying and people obviously were super scared.”
Between 200 and 300 people were packed into the hotel’s basement — a storage area, Azbell said, where they kept chairs and other furniture. Nobody had any information about the situation.
After about 15 minutes people began wondering whether the alert had been a false alarm, she said. When they were finally told they could leave several minutes later, Azbell said she was “super relieved.”
“Hawaii is beautiful,” she told CNN. “But it’s not where I want to die.”
‘People were crawling under tables’
Amy Pottinger’s husband is a pilot for the US Air Force, stationed in Hawaii. They and their two children have lived on a military base there for about a year and a half.
Pottinger hadn’t seen the alert yet when her husband, who was on his way to work, called to tell her he was on his way home.
He was in a cafe on base when phones started going off around him, Pottinger said. As he was leaving, he saw people taking cover.
“People were crawling under tables and hiding,” she said, “and going into buildings that looked more sturdy.”
Within about five minutes they had a “good suspicion” that the threat wasn’t real, Pottinger said.
When asked whether she believed the tensions between the United States and North Korea gave the threat of a ballistic missile attack additional credibility, Pottinger said, “Absolutely.”
“I like to keep myself educated with what’s going on in the news and that’s pseudo-related to my husband’s job,” she told CNN. “So I follow that enough to view that as a very real threat. Obviously that only further validates fears that this could be legitimate.”
Vacationers in tears
Adnan Mesiwala is currently visiting Waikiki with his family to celebrate his father’s 40th anniversary, he told CNN affiliate KHNL.
“This morning we were actually getting ready to go to the beach,” he said. “I got a 2-month-old. Our family was together when we got the alarm. We were actually terrified.”
The family was staying on the 36th floor of the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki. The hotel told its guests to stay indoors, Mesiwala said.
“It was a frantic morning,” he told KHNL. “My wife was in tears and didn’t know what to do.”
His father, Kutub Mesiwala, had just arrived the night before.
“With the new political environment, you know, we really thought this is serious,” Kutub Mesiwala said.