The morning of January 13th, just two days into their vacation in Hawai’i, Zürich family Olivia Raths, Rafael Gschwend and their young daughter, Linda, found themselves suddenly preparing for the unthinkable: a possible nuclear missile attack on the U.S. island state.
Like everyone in Hawaii with a cellphone, the Swiss family received an urgent alert shortly after 8:00 AM: “Emergency Alert, BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”.
— Daniel Marnen (@DMarnen) January 14, 2018
Then they heard the warning sirens. Hawai’i has long had sirens positioned around the state, especially near shorelines to warn against approaching tsunamis (seismic sea waves). But on Dec. 1 last year, in the wake of bellicose back-and-forth threats from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, the state tested a new siren alert sequence specifically to warn against an impending nuclear attack.
That’s what the Swiss family was hearing Saturday morning – though local news reports say the sirens did not sound around most of the state.
The Swiss family asked someone what they should do, and were told to be ready to “drive up the hill because of a possible tsunami if the missile hits the sea”, said Raths today from the Kona Coast on Hawai‘i island. Though this island is about 260 km. from the island of O‘ahu, where are located the capital city of Honolulu and several large military bases – the certain primary target of any nuclear attack on the state – the fear among the neighbouring island’s population was clear, said Raths.
“Linda and I were nervous, Rafi less” she said.
Then came relief. Gschwend kept checking international media on his phone, first finding a report from a U.K. newspaper that the nuclear attack alert had been a mistake.
“The risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical — accidents have happened in the past, and humans will err again,” said William J. Perry, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton https://t.co/A88z5Mqtfz
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 14, 2018
According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Hawaii’s state government has confirmed that, during a shift change at the state Civil Defense agency, a worker clicked his mouse – twice – to mistakenly activate the public warning against an approaching ballistic missile. Instead of clicking the button to test the alert system internally, he or she (the worker has not been identified) clicked the button to activate a public alert. And when the computer asked for confirmation to activate the public alert, as opposed to the internal system test, the worker did so.
The alert went out at 8:07 AM. The mistake was quickly discovered and at 8:10 AM the head of the Emergency Management Agency confirmed with the U.S. Pacific Command that there was no missile launch, however a second text to the public to say it was a false alert was not sent until 8:45 AM, 38 minutes after the first text.
So now it’s back to a hopefully more normal Hawai’i vacation for Raths, Gschwend and their daughter. As dad said on Facebook, “Let’s go to the beach”.
What would happen in Switzerland under similar circumstances?
By Bill Harby
Bill Harby is a freelance writer who comes from Hawaii.