Reporter recounts moments after Hawaii missile alert | Inquirer

Reporter recounts moments after Hawaii missile alert

Associated Press correspondent Caleb Jones was with his daughter, seen here at their Honolulu home, when state emergency officials mistakenly sent out a cellphone alert warning of a missile heading for Hawaii. He recounts the panic that he, like other islanders, felt not knowing for several minutes if the threat was real. AP PHOTO

HONOLULU — It was a beautiful Hawaii morning: nice breeze, blue skies, birds chirping. Then terror struck.

We were up early, my daughter and I, because this Saturday morning was her first day of ice skating lessons, a day we had been talking about and looking forward to for months.


We were also having construction done in our Honolulu apartment, which sits atop a hill overlooking the Nuuanu Valley and, in the distance, Pearl Harbor. So, I had been frantically clearing out the living room and covering our things with sheets so they wouldn’t be smothered in sawdust.

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We got her skating clothes on and tacked up the living room, and I was just about to hop in the shower when, around 8:07 a.m., my phone started the aggressive, long pulsating tone that normally accompanies a flash flood or other warning.


A false alarm that warned of a ballistic missile headed for Hawaii sent the islands into a panic Saturday, with people abandoning cars in a highway and preparing to flee their homes until officials said the cell phone alert was a mistake. (Jan. 13)

“Not a drill?” I thought.

I looked out over the valley toward Honolulu International Airport and Pearl Harbor and envisioned a nuclear blast spreading over the landscape and funneling up the Pali Highway and into my thin-walled home. It’s literally a direct line to the most likely military target. There was no concrete structure, no basement, not even an interior room that would make sense to wait in. I wasn’t prepared with water or food. I panicked.

As a journalist, I knew what officials recommended. I have covered the drills, the warnings, the siren tests. According to emergency officials, it could take between 12 and 15 minutes for a missile to strike. I knew more than probably most people in Hawaii: Shelter in place, take cover, tune in and await instructions.


But fight or flight kicked in. All the nuclear threat models that state officials run use Pearl Harbor and its adjoining military base as ground zero. I also knew there wouldn’t be any rush hour traffic on a Saturday morning. I chose flight, which in retrospect may have been the wrong decision. But maybe not.

“We’re going,” I thought.

I had 12 minutes to get my daughter out of the blast zone and over the mountain range.

“Get your shoes on, we have to go,” I told the 7-year-old girl who I protect and cherish with my life.

She asked why, and I first told her I wasn’t quite sure but we had to go. I was watching my clock. Eleven minutes.

Around the same time I started making calls for work. After my daughter, my priority was informing the world about what was happening. Text messages started coming in from colleagues. Planning started happening. Calls were being made.

Nine minutes.

“What’s happening, Daddy?” she asked repeatedly.

I decided to be honest and maintained a calm tone.

“I don’t know yet, Honey, but you know the siren tests you had at school. It’s like that, and we just need to go somewhere safe.”

“There’s a missile?” she asked, a question I never imagined my young daughter would have to ask.

My plan was to make it to a Target in Kailua and shelter there. Plenty of food, strong structure, far from a likely ground zero. I had my laptop and everything I needed for work and figured I would be able to do my job and hopefully protect my daughter.

We jumped in my car and drove away from Honolulu. Others had the same idea, it seemed. People were driving extremely fast away from the center of town, but traffic was still light enough that cars were flowing over the highway that connects the east side of Oahu to Honolulu.

You could see the panic on people’s faces, blatantly using their cellphones while driving — something we’ve learned through hefty traffic fines not to do.

I got to the top of the Pali Highway and to the other side of the mountain range pretty quickly, looking in my rear-view mirror to see if there was a mushroom cloud.

By that time, one of my colleagues had gotten in touch with officials who told her it was a false alarm. She texted the news to me. Still, there was no official notice of an all-clear, and the people around me continued to panic.

Once I knew we all weren’t going to die, my panic and fear for my daughter’s safety turned to energy to get the story out. I turned around and returned home, making calls along the way. Some calls failed as the wireless system became overwhelmed.

We made it to her 9:30 a.m. skating lesson, in which she nailed the teacup maneuver and skated backward with her classmates. I interviewed other parents about what happened, sent in quotes and gathered some video.

After her class, for the next eight hours, my daughter and I sat in the Associated Press bureau working to get the story out. She was visibly shaken but in good spirits. She made me and my colleagues laugh throughout the afternoon, scooting around on a rolling chair and asking over and over again if we could do something more fun.

Today, as the sun rises over our view of Pearl Harbor, we feel relief that we can, indeed, do something more fun. After I write this story.

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TAGS: false alarm, Hawaii, nuclear missile, Pearl Harbor
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