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24 Oct 2018, 03:07 HRS IST
  • PTI
  • Hawaii panics after inbound missile alert goes off in error

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13:59 HRS IST

(Eds: Updating with more inputs)

By Lalit K Jha

Washington/Honolulu, Jan 14 (PTI)
A false alert warning of a ballistic missile aimed at Hawaii today triggered panic in the US territory, forcing authorities to apologise for the "human error", amidst fears of an attack by North Korea.

At around 8.07 am local Hawaii time, an emergency alert was sent to all cell phones in caps. "Ballistic missile threat inbounds to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill".

About 10 minutes later, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted that there was no such threat. "No missile threat to Hawaii," it said. The second emergency alert went out at 8:45 am.

"There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm," it said.

Hawaii Governor David Ige said "human error" caused the alert to go out.

"It was a mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift, and an employee pushed the wrong button," he was quoted as saying by CNN.

The warning went out to television and radio as well as cell phones, Ige added.

Ige also tweeted that he is meeting with top defence and emergency management officials from the state "to determine what caused this morning's false alarm and to prevent it from happening again."

US Pacific Command in a separate statement said it detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.

"Earlier message was sent in error," it said.

Wireless emergency alerts are usually dispatched during critical emergency situations and are a partnership of the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the wireless industry.

Shortly after the false alarm, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the commission was launching an investigation into what happened.

Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz also took to Twitter yesterday in the wake of the false alarm.

"There is no missile threat," the Democratic senator tweeted. "It was a false alarm based on a human error. There is nothing more important to Hawaii than professionalizing and fool-proofing this process."

White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said President Donald Trump has been briefed on the state of Hawaii's emergency management exercise.

The alert came when tension with North Korea has been at one of the highest points in decades, and when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has promised more missile tests and threatened an atmospheric nuclear test.

Less than two months ago, Hawaii reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea.

If a missile were launched by North Korea toward Hawaii, the 1.4 million residents of the islands would have only about 20 minutes' notice before it hit.

Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said the people of Hawaii "just got a sense of the stark reality of what a nuclear strike on Hawaii would be".

"Over a million of Hawaii's people were faced with the immediate reality of having 15 minutes to find a place to "take shelter," wondering where do I go? What shelter is going to protect me & my family from a nuclear bomb? But there's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide," she said in a series of lengthy tweets.

"Everyone in America needs to understand that if you had to go through this, you would be as angry as I am -- I have been talking about the seriousness of this threat for years," Gabbard said.

The Congresswoman from Hawaii, Gabbard accused Trump of "posturing" and not taking nuclear threats from North Korea seriously and urged to begin direct talks with Pyongyang without preconditions.

"Donald Trump is taking too long. Now is not the time for posturing. He must take this threat seriously and begin direct talks with North Korea, without preconditions, to de-escalate and denuclearise the Korean peninsula. There is no time to waste," Gabbard said.

"The people of Hawaii should never have had to go through this. The people of America should not be faced with this threat right now. We need peace -- not political bickering. We have to talk to North Korea and find a peaceful path to get rid of this nuclear threat," she said.

Hawaiian residents and tourists described an island paradise turned upside down as people crawled under tables in cafes, were ushered into military hangars and huddled around televisions to watch the news for the latest developments after the alert was issued.

Hawaii resident Amy Pottinger's husband is a pilot for the US Air Force, stationed in Hawaii. 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."

Another citizen Jocelyn Azbell had just woken up in her Maui hotel when she was hurried into the hotel's basement to take shelter from an incoming ballistic missile.

"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?'" the 24-year-old said.

Azbell, her boyfriend and hundreds of other hotel guests were "herded like cows" into the basement by staff.

"People are crying and people obviously were super scared," she said.

For 20 minutes, Azbell said, they waited. Finally, they were told that the alert was a false alarm, and they were free to resume their day. Azbell said she was "super relieved." "Hawaii is beautiful," she said. "But it's not where I want to die".

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