False alarm sends Hawaii scrambling amid report of a ballistic missile heading toward the island
Around 1 p.m. ET, social media lit up with Hawaiian residents and visitors who received cellphone alerts warning that a projectile was heading for the island. The message, which was transmitted by the Civil Defense department, was accompanied by an ominous warning that the alarm was "not a drill."
The erroneous alert sent recipients into a state of frenzy, with scores reportedly running for shelter and taking cover, until Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard debunked the alert as a false alarm. Hawaiian officials, as well as the U.S. Pacific Command, followed suit but not until nearly 40 minutes later.
"State Warning Point has issued a Missile Alert in ERROR! There is NO threat to the State of Hawaii," U.S. Pacific Command's David Benham said in a statement.
The U,S. Federal Communications Commission confirmed to NBC News that it's launching an investigation into the false emergency alert.
The panic ensued as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have been heightened — a fact that was not lost on Hawaiians and visitors who were sent scrambling as the mistaken alert hit cellphones.
Jodi Luchs, an ophthalmologist from Merrick, N.Y. visiting Hawaii for a conference, told CNBC that he was settling in for breakfast on an otherwise perfect day, when hundreds of diners received the false alarm simultaneously.
"On the face of it, it was extremely concerning ... everyone got up in a rather orderly fashion and started filing toward the interior areas of the hotel" because the venue had no basement, Luchs told CNBC. About half an hour passed before the hotel's guests got an all-clear, he said, adding that some people were legitimately scared and in tears until they realized the alarm was false.
"Most people were obviously very relieved about everything, and the concern was real given that the wording of the message did not leave much to the imagination," Luchs told CNBC. "With tensions with North Korea, everyone regarded this as a serious threat."
North Korea has tested a volley of ballistic missiles over the last few years, and has repeatedly threatened the U.S. with nuclear conflict. Amid the threat, Hawaii last month tested a nuclear siren warning for the first time since the Cold War.