Friday | January 19, 2018
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Residents and visitors confused, frightened by missile warning

East Hawaii residents are still reeling after Saturday morning’s mistakenly sent missile threat alert spun the state into a panic.

“It was frantic here,” recalled Naalehu resident Alex Williamson, who was selling goods at the downtown Hilo Farmers Market when the alert appeared on his phone. “We didn’t know what to think. The market manager came out and said ‘Everyone get out, you have 20 minutes to leave. Pack up your stuff and go home and be with your family.’ We were literally crying. And it wasn’t funeral tears it was like hysteric tears, like a movie. I packed up and gave everyone around me a big, long hug.”

Hawaii Emergency Management Authority blamed the false alarm on “human error” by an employee. The all-caps alert warned of an inbound ballistic missile and advised residents to “seek immediate shelter” and said “this is not a drill.”

It caused downtown Hilo street-goers to run to storefronts for shelter. Morning joggers and pedestrians dashed into the nearest homes of strangers. Many people said they huddled inside their basements and bedrooms as they attempted to contact loved ones.

Some cars opted to pull over or speed to the nearest safe place. Confused Big Island social media users flooded Twitter and Facebook seeking information.

A staff member at a hotel on Banyan Drive said guests were told via overhead speaker to stay in their rooms until more information was available.

“It was just enough anxiety to get yourself spinning,” said New York visitor John Boone, 66, who was at a Pepeekeo vacation rental with his wife Jenny Boone along with other friends. “Because what are you supposed to do? There was nothing to do and it took a few minutes to figure that out. They said to seek shelter but there was no shelter to be sought. Then we scanned the skies and there was nothing, so we turned on the TV and nothing and that’s when we thought it was a pretty good indication it might be a non-event.”

The Pohakuloa Training Area evacuated personnel to its USO and opened its gates to civilians. An estimated 50 to 60 civilians sought shelter at PTA including nearby hunters, tourists and people driving on Saddle Road.

Among them was Hilo resident George Orais-Bonheimer who said he was driving home from Kailua-Kona with his family when the alert came through.

“It was perfectly beautiful and then all six of our cell phones started going off,” Orais-Bonheimer recalled. “There’s no shelter up there obviously and we’d just passed the military base. Everyone on the (Saddle) was starting to slow down, they weren’t sure what to do. Cars were turning around so we floored it back to the military base.”

Once at PTA, Orais-Bonheimer said most people were “keeping calm” but they were still “shaking like a leaf” and “really nervous.” He said he attempted to reach contacts on the mainland for information.

“It was just mass confusion,” he said. “No one really knew what to do. There really isn’t adequate shelter so it’s like where do we actually go? There was just a lot of chaos.”

“A part of me thought it was nice to know the alerts go out so fast but there also was a lot of anger that it was a false alarm,” Orais-Bonheimer continued. “Especially when it reads ‘This is not a drill.’ So your questioning of doubt automatically goes out the window and you take it really serious.”

West Hawaii wasn’t immune to the panic either. Konawaena High School, host to a high school wrestling meet Saturday morning, moved people inside to the center of the gym.

And at Kaya’s cafe, between Honalo and Kainaliu, employee Emiliegh Tena was on her first day back at work after vacation.

Tena’s phone went off on the cafe’s loudspeaker as alerts started coming into patrons’ phones.

At first, Tena said, she swiped it away, thinking it was maybe a drill.

“I think we were all kinda just confused to be honest,” she said, “It’s like, almost, like it wasn’t real.”

Back at the Hilo farmers market, Williamson said he was initially unsure where to go. He said he initially began driving home to Naalehu but later turned around after getting word it was possibly a false alarm.

He said “as frantic and as scared as everyone was there was a lot of love here between all the vendors.”

“I’m feeling a lot of things,” Williamson said. “Anger is maybe one of the things I feel but it’s not overwhelming. My main feeling is that, I just want to be more prepared. But then what can you do to prepared in this situation? Maybe I just need to do some more research. Because what do you do? Do I go in the basement? Should I be in a car? I don’t know. So I felt more a sense of awakeness and thinking I should just be more prepared.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at

West Hawaii Today reporter Cameron Miculka contributed to this report.


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