An alert mistakenly directing panicked Hawaiians to seek immediate shelter from an incoming ballistic missile was the result of human error, the state’s governor said.
The emergency notice was triggered after an “employee pushed the wrong button” during a shift change at the state’s emergency management agency, Governor David Ige said at a press conference in Honolulu. The Federal Communications Commission is “launching a full investigation” into the incident, Chairman Ajit Pai said on Twitter.
Residents of the island state, as well as thousands of tourists, woke around 8:07 a.m. local time on Saturday to alerts lighting up their mobile phones and interrupting television programming about a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii” and the warning that “this is not a drill” but an “extreme alert.”
Emergency authorities reversed the warning with a second mobile alert sent 38 minutes later confirming “no missile threat or danger” and “false alarm.” The city of Honolulu, the state’s capital, confirmed “no threat” on its website several minutes earlier.
In a statement, the White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed on what it described as “the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise.” Trump spent much of Saturday at one of his golf courses in Florida.
“It was a false alarm based on human error,” Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said on Twitter, adding that the incident was “totally inexcusable.” Schatz said Hawaii’s residents were “terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”
Suzanne Mulder, a Bloomberg employee from Princeton, New Jersey, is vacationing in Honolulu with her family. Her 10-year-old-son noticed the mobile alert.
“We grabbed all the food and water we had, the kids grabbed their stuffed animals and we headed to the lobby,” Mulder said. “Kids crying everywhere, no one knew what was happening. We made our way to an internal bathroom and huddled there with some other people. It was probably 30 minutes between the alert and when we knew it was a false alarm.”
One video making the rounds on social media showed children being lowered into a storm drain for safety.
Hawaii has been on high alert given claims by North Korea that its newest intercontinental ballistic missile could fly 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles). If true, that would put even the mainland U.S. within range from Pyongyang. The isolated nation conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3, and launched more than a dozen missiles in the past year.
“At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to the community is accurate,” Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, said on Twitter. “We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again.”
Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, one of the first to confirm that the missile alert was false, later said on CNN that Trump was “taking too long” to deal with tensions surrounding North Korea, which contributed to dialing up the panic from Saturday’s incident.
“You’d be angry just like I am,” said Gabbard, a Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It points to the failure of our leaders that we are sitting here in a state where this threat, this text message, was a very real thing. Today’s one was mistake, but the reality is that this threat is very real.”
Hawaii’s governor said he plans to meet with emergency management authorities and the Department of Defense about the incident. Scott Saiki, speaker of the Hawaiian House of Representatives, said the emergency management system “failed miserably,” and promised an immediate investigation.