It was a beautiful morning on the Big Island of Hawaii as Kevin and Pamela Spitze drove to an art show in Hilo when the alert suddenly came on Kevin’s smartphone screen:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The Spitzes, who recently moved from Los Angeles to Hawaii’s Big Island, said they were already living on edge in paradise because of all the recent inflammatory bluster between the United States and North Korea over nuclear weapons and threats of attack.
“We have such a barrage of negative stuff that has been happening that our senses have been heightened,” said Pamela Spitze, 64, a retired community college training program staffer. “We thought it was the real thing. We are very concerned.”
For 40 nail-biting minutes, the Spitzes and millions across Hawaii thought a ballistic missile was hurtling their way until authorities announced it was as false alarm. There were reports of individuals reduced to tears and scattering back to their homes and hotels and unsure what to do next.
“We thought our biggest risks were tsunamis or volcanoes,” said Bill Hulse, 61, a retired engineer, while waiting to take a whale-watching excursion. “From the mainland we had heard that Hawaii tested the systems multiple times.”
The Spitzes said they called the police to get guidance or confirmation, but there was no answer. They question how the false alarm could have happened and why it took so long to get the word out that it was a mistake.
The emergency alert, which was broadcast to smartphones just before 8:10 a.m., had been made even scarier with the words: “This is not a drill.”
Hawaii Gov. David Ige blamed the alarm on human error. He said an employee “pushed the wrong button” while testing the system during a shift change.
Richard Repoza of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the agency is working to determine what went wrong.
President Trump, spending a weekend of golfing at his Mar-a-Lago property in Florida, was briefed about the incident, according to White House officials.
“The President has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise,” Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “This was purely a state exercise.”
Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki also told the Associated Press someone pushed the wrong button, and Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Ige, confirmed human error triggered the alarm, but said she didn’t have further details.
Saiki said the system Hawaii residents have been told to rely on failed miserably. He also took emergency management officials to task for taking so long to issue a correction, prolonging panic.
He said in a statement that the Hawaii House of Representatives would begin an immediate investigation.
“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” Saiki said.
The incident prompted defense agencies including the Pentagon and the U.S. Pacific Command to issue the same statement, that they had “detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.”
Michael Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., said NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command were still trying to verify what happened in Hawaii — but that “NORAD did not see anything that indicated any sort of threat to Hawaii.”
“From a NORAD perspective and that of the U.S. Northern Command, we are still trying to verify what happened,” he said.
NORAD is a U.S.-Canada joint command that conducts aerospace warning and control and maritime warning to defend North America. The U.S. Northern Command, also based in Colorado Springs, is tasked with air, land and sea defense of the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico and portions of the Caribbean.
The alert caused a tizzy on the island and across social media.
At the Sony Open golf tournament on the island of Oahu, the Waialae Country Club was largely empty and players were still a few hours from arriving for the PGA Tour event. The tournament staff urged an evacuation of the media center. “This is not a drill,” said Candice Kraughto, who runs media operations for the tournament.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
2:55 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting and reactions from Hawaii.
1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki.
12:20 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the White House and reactions from Hawaii.
11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with statements from Hawaii Gov. David Ige and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.
11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Honolulu resident Jamie Malapit.
10:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.
This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.