I am starting a new series called Grown-up Storytime because we all need to engage in the social and cultural activity of sharing stories. Creating a communal space for sharing and discussing and learning from others is the exception now, not the rule. My goal is to eventually have guest bloggers share their stories here and later create a live community space for folks to come together and share stories. In the meantime, join me on this inaugural story as I tell you about the ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii in January 2018 and how my husband and I were affected by the horrifying false alarm.
It is a beautiful and warm Saturday morning in Maui. My husband and I sit down and order breakfast at a local diner. We are winding down from a rejuvenating, kid-free week on the island while gearing up to head back the next day to rainy Seattle and to our daughters. Our parents are caring for Maxine (three), and Florence (10-months-old).
Prior to leaving Seattle for this trip to Maui, I was a little reticent about vacationing on the island. If you know me, you know I tend to lean into the safe side of life, which means no extreme sports, no roller coasters, and no one bathing my kids but me just in case of an accident. Also: flying is not my favorite activity. In days leading up to our vacation, the U.S. president taunted North Korea and its leadership over whose ballistic missile button was larger and easiest to push. So it’s safe to say that I was concerned about traveling to Hawaii during this politically contentious time. Because WHAT IF a missile was fired and hit Hawaii? But, before we cozied into our upgraded seats on the plane to Maui, I talked myself into a state of calm and comfort. Our plane wasn’t going to go down. Nothing would happen to the girls while we were gone. And Hawaii would still be standing when we left the island the following week.
So here we sit in this diner. My husband takes a phone call from a colleague at the same time I feel my phone vibrate next to me. I ignore it. Then I hear a siren. I look around seeking the expressions and reactions of other diners, trying to figure out what made that sound. No one seems alarmed, so feeling my phone continue to buzz, I pick it up to see two text messages and an emergency alert.
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
“INBOUND TO HAWAII.” The words felt like a mean prank. I mean, I’m on Hawaii right now, I thought. This isn’t happening.
I stare at the message as if I am the star in a movie, waiting for Will Smith to sweep me up to safety. But movies never feel this terrifying. And actors don’t do justice to this kind of true fear, or the deep sadness in believing you won’t see your children again. Or the possibility of being separated from your spouse among tsunami waves – or worse, vaporizing radiation.
I stand up to see what other diners are doing. Many gaze at their phones, some continue to enjoy their breakfast blissfully ignorant of surrounding events. Neither of these scenarios give me a clear sign of what to do so I approach my server. “I don’t know what to do!” she says. “I have goosebumps. This is not good.” As the server turns away, a father and his young son run passed me, calling his wife and daughter to immediately get up and leave with him. They do.
Feeling the blood drain from my face, I walk over to show my husband, still on the phone call, the alert. A sense of severe panic and dread come over me. I remember standing there, my voice shaking, telling him, “It’s not a drill. They say it’s not a drill! Oh my god, what do we do?” I am lost. I feel completely hopeless. There is nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.
No one around us knows what to do. The restaurant management is nowhere in sight. The staff stands around in bewilderment and fear. In paying attention to the news, I know that after a missile launch, civilians have maybe 20 minutes to seek shelter. While this is all happening in a matter of seconds, every second feels like a lifetime and I have no idea how fast or slow time is truly going. I only know that the panic continues to sweep through my body, clouding my mind. I am overwhelmed and drowning in fear.
My husband grabs me and tells me to follow him to the car. “What are we going to do?” I keep repeating this question expecting it to eventually compel my husband with a suddenly brilliant and life-saving answer, which it does not. Our only option is to drive up the large hill across the highway as high as we can go. And so we do.
Driving up against this hill, we see a man on a walk. My husband pulls the car up next to him and asks if he has any information on the emergency alert. He tells us to go sit on a beach and just wait for the waves. This absolutely kills my spirit, and I start to cry. By this point, I am beyond fear and panic. I am distraught. I am grieving my children, imagining them at home with their grandparents, never seeing them again. I hate myself for coming to Hawaii when I intuitively felt that we’d be in the cross-hairs of a war with North Korea. And now we are going to die here, I think to myself.
To find any possibility of hope that this missile wouldn’t affect us, my husband turns on the radio and I start Googling for news headlines. Nothing. The radio has nothing but commercials and songs. The internet takes a lifetime to load pages, which also lead us to dead ends.
What I haven’t mentioned this far is that my sister and her husband are also on this trip with us. They are in their hotel room and hadn’t joined us for breakfast. As I search for information on my iPhone, my sister sends a text that she also isn’t having luck with the Internet but that minutes after the alert, hotel guests were running through the halls yelling to seek shelter. My sister, she says, is sitting at the edge of the bed, not sure what to else to do.
A few more minutes pass. My sister calls back to tell us that the hotel staff have just announced that the alert was a false alarm. “Are you sure?” I ask. “Are you sure? It was fake?” Yes, she was sure. Yes, it was fake. Many minutes after that, maybe a half hour later, the false alarm alert shows up on my phone and confirms it.
“There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”
I cried for an hour.
Even though we didn’t technically cheat death that day, it feels that way because the fear, panic, sadness and hopelessness of the inevitable was right there at our fingertips, even if only deceptively. My husband and I arrived back home to Seattle that Sunday evening at around midnight. Our girls were hours into their bedtimes by then, asleep soundly. Each of us went in, lifted them from their beds and gave them a long hug, so happy to know that we were back with them.