Australian journalist Silas Aiton recounts the terrifying experience of living through a seemingly imminent missile strike – a threat made credible under the bellicose presidency of Donald Trump and the warmongering of North Korea.
It is around 8am as I blearily wake in my Waikiki hotel room after a late night drinking cocktails by the beach. My wife is asleep as I check my phone when it starts vibrating in my hand with an emergency alert that reads:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
I stare at it for about 30 seconds, thinking to myself: “This can’t be right.” But I am reminded of an emergency flood warning a month ago in Australia. That was real, and the messages look similar.
Still, I decide not to wake my wife. Perhaps it is a hoax. Or some kind of mistake.
I look out our hotel window on the 28th floor to see if there is any commotion. Nothing. But then my heart sinks as I hear the distant voice of a woman say: “It says to seek immediate shelter.”
Okay, it’s not just me.
The morning sun wakes my wife, who asks what I am doing. I tell her of the alert. I’ve never seen her get out of bed so quickly (she’s a much better sleeper than I am). She paces back and forth while I urge her not to panic.
We put on the television. Relief. None of the news stations is reporting anything, but when we switch to a sports channel the basketball commentary has been muted out with a male voice bleating out the message of the alert repeatedly.
My heart sinks again. My wife grabs her small bag and fills it with our passports, wallets and … sunscreen. Don’t ask me why. She keeps asking herself the same question.
I decide to ring the hotel reception desk. A very calm woman answers, telling me: “We are trying to get to the bottom of this. You will hear an alarm if you need to be evacuated and someone will usher you to an evacuation area once we find out.”
“Find out? Find out what?!”
I ask if we should stay in our room.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Stay in your room, sir, until you hear from us.”
My wife and I are both ‘stress heads’. This time she is panicking more than me. I can’t make sense of it. It doesn’t seem right.
Maybe ignorance is bliss. I had no idea it takes about 10 minutes for a missile to arrive in Hawaii if fired by North Korea, the most likely suspect.
We find another local TV station that is finally reporting on the panic, saying it is a false alarm. But the unsure expression on the face of the reporter, who resembles Ryan Gosling, is not convincing. We need more reassurance.
My wife looks out of the window and sees families running. Others are happily eating their breakfast on tables outside cafes. Are they oblivious, skeptical or unperturbed?
Finally, finally our fears are allayed by CNN, the ever-reliable American news that seems to hate Donald Trump. It reports the message is a false alarm. There is nothing to worry about. The text had been sent in error. “The wrong button had been pushed.”
Later, the mayor of Honolulu tells via the TV that he is embarrassed. Senators are angry. The people of Hawaii are furious. The governor apologises and attempts to explain.
Someone “pushed the wrong button”, he says.
All very well and good but the important thing is we are safe – and more important than that, we now know we are safe.
After that, getting on for 40 minutes after the first alert, I finally receive a message on my phone saying it was all a mistake, just a false alarm.
We had been saving for over a year to spend Christmas and the new year in New York and to wind down with a week in Hawaii on the way home.
Before the alarm we had been sad about going home. But after this we look at each other and agree: “It’s time to get out of here.”
A friend staying at a nearby hotel had earlier declined a dinner invitation because her holiday savings were nearly exhausted. She sends a text: “I’m coming out with you guys tonight. We’ve got to celebrate that we’re alive.”