Oregonians in Hawaii describe chaos in moments after ballistic missile alert

This smartphone screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregonians visiting Hawaii over the weekend described 38 minutes of chaos and confusion after a ballistic missile alert was falsely sent to everyone on the islands.

Everyone with cell phones received the alert on their phones just after 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning. The message said, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

“We came back from breakfast and got the alert on our phone,” said Ken Vance, a Salem man who is visiting Hawaii.

Vance said the hotel he was staying at directed everyone to come down to the lobby. He said the visitors were worried about safety and security. The big question was “what do we do?”

“The lobby is just absolutely jam stocked full of people here,” Vance said. “There are kids crying tears and shaking. Moms holding them. Moms crying too. It's quite the emotional scene here.”

MaryAnn Thibeault, a Southeast Portland woman who was visiting Hawaii, was a different hotel Saturday morning. She says she was reading at the pool when a hotel employee came to tell her the news.

“The emergency system went on the hotels. It basically said that there is an incoming missile warning and that everyone needed to meet in the lobby,” Thibeault said.

Like Vance, Thibeault said there was a lot of confusion in the moments after the alert. She described chaos in the hallways, people calling loved ones. She said others thought it was fake. Eventually, Thibeault said the hotel brought hundreds of visitors to the basement. She described it as a bunker.

“The most secure area in the hotel and there is eight feet on concrete above in that area,” she said.

Thirty-eight minutes after the initial alert, everyone received a second alert saying this was a false alarm: “There is no missile threat or danger to the state of Hawaii. Repeat. False alarm.” Hawaii state officials say someone pressed the wrong button during a shift change, triggering the alarm.

Those who initially received the message say it felt like a real and dire situation considering recent developments with North Korea and their ongoing ballistic missile tests.

“I definitely thought about if what's going on in politics right now wasn’t the case, I might not have thought it was as real as I did in the moment, but it definitely felt like it was a real possibility,” said Thibeault.

“I have so much confidence in our Navy, that I believe we could shoot down a missile if we needed to,” said Vance, who is a Navy veteran.

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