Waikiki Beach packed with hundreds, panicked and fear stricken, deciding how to spend their last twelve minutes until missile impact.
As like most Saturday mornings, on January 13th, I cruised through Queen’s Beach on the east end of Hawaii’s famous Waikiki Beach. Routinely I walk the same course week by week. I say good morning to the familiar and unfamiliar faces as I stroll the sidewalks, sandwiched between a picture perfect beach and a collection of vibrant and colorful paintings. The artists chipperly assemble their vending displays every Saturday morning, decorating the zoo fence with projections of their personalities and creativity. With the recent welcome of 2018, the New Years spirits were still clinging to those who seem to always have something to cheer about. I said hello to my artist friends, wished them good luck for the day, and continued on my way. The clear blue skies backdropped the turquoise sea, the streets bustling with vacationers motivated by the morning sun. Rewind one hour, these same streets were filled with frantic tourist and terrified locals. Confusion and fear was the commonality in each individual as they accepted their fate.
At 8:08 AM, alarms rang from every corner of the room. It was three minutes past my arrival, and I was five minutes late, or as the locals would say just in time, island time. The beach bar is bright and cheery, with surfboards lined by the door, and waves crashing in the distant view. It was promised to be another gorgeous day in paradise, slangin tropical cocktails at Lulu’s Waikiki. I strolled in the bar sporting a huge smile, a black flowery dress with knee high socks, and black boots to match, my typical bartending attire. After a few short conversations, and a couple warm hugs, I poured myself a hot coffee and got working. Before I could put my coffee down, I spot my coworker bursting from the kitchen doors, marching behind his forward projected arm, iPhone in hand, faced screen out. I could tell something was urgent, but he’s out of ears reach. As he approaches the manager on duty, the manager accepts the phone from his frantic grip, and cradles it in his hands. Then it was like a chain reaction. Every person in the restaurant started taking out their phone. I could see panic in their eyes. The open air view of Waikiki’s crashing waves seemed to be the next place the blank faces turned to. I couldn’t make out what my coworkers were saying. I knew it was serious. No one responded to me after the third time as I proclaimed, “What going on?!?” For a split second, I thought maybe it was a tsunami warning. But no! My coworker was much too frantic, it couldn’t be a tsunami warning. We get those all the time. Then I recalled hearing a tsunami alert (which happens to be the same alarm that would sound for catastrophic event) just minutes prior. But with Hawaii’s frequent squawking of monthly tests, and tsunami warnings, most of us have grown accustomed to unconsciously dismissing the alarm completely. I ran to the back of the bar, pulled out my phone, and read the following alert, “Emergency Alert BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
I lifted my head wearing the same blank stare I witnessed dozens of others with. The TVs started flashing alerts on the local surf channels, yet the NFL games continued to play uninterrupted. I looked at the one gentleman sitting at my bar, and said, “Are you seeing this?”, projecting my phone forward in the same fashion I witnessed my coworker share the news with our boss. The sixty-something year old gentlemen replies, “I don’t carry my phone on me, what is it?” After I graced him with thirty seconds to read and reread the alert on my phone, I start remembering all the research I’d done previously after the official warning went out to the University of Hawaii students in the fall of 2017. Twelve minutes. Twelve minutes was how long it would take for a North Korea missile to hit after hearing the alarm. My body starts to catch up with my brain, as my blank stare turns into panic. I retrieve my phone, the gentleman throws twenty dollars on the bartop and scurries out as another gentleman sits down. I look at the arriving man and say, “I’m not sure if you got the warning, but Hawaii is under a missile threat”, he replied with a calm, “Well, can I still get a drink?” By this time my boss has made his way behind the bar to notify me that we are officially closed. I look at the gentleman, and I look at my boss, and I said “I’m going home to be with my dog.”
I made a few ‘last calls’ yet only one was answered. After a brief explanation of the nature of the call, the only thing I could say was “I love you”, which gratefully was comforted by the response of “I love you too.” My eyes filled with tears, and my hands began to lose their stability, I realized this may be the end. I grabbed my belonging and pried my way into the streets of Waikiki. There were people everywhere. The hotels had more guests than they could contain. New conversations could be heard with every step. Hundreds of people in the streets. People were calling home to loved ones to say their last goodbyes. Some phone calls frantic, some calm, others with no words just sounds of sobbing. As I rushed through the crowds, I see dozens of people surrounding a police officer. I quickly approach the officer, unapologetic of what I may have been interrupting. “Excuse me officer, is there any information that you may have that the general public may not?” He holds his radio closer to his ear to catch the last few words of the voice on the other end saying, “The alert was only a test.” He looks in my eyes and says, “Everything is fine, we are in communication with the Secretary of Defence and it has been confirmed that this is just a test, there is no missile threat to Hawaii.
Skepticism begins to set in. Why would they tell us anyway? Wouldn’t that just cause mass hysteria? I hastily began making my way closer to where my ride was set to pick me up. I’m abruptly halted by a tourist couple, both frantic and panicking. The young man looks at me with tear filled eyes, clenching her hand tightly, he says, “Where do we go? They are telling us to seek shelter, but nobody knows where to go!” I pointed to the great crater of Leahi, I said “Go as far as you can in that direction, get out of Waikiki!” With fear in their faces, they ran, hand in hand, crossing through streets, with disregard for common traffic laws and practices. There was no time to consider anything but survival. For minutes, which seemed like hours, I watched the fear of death possess the population. There were no thoughts for the future, or about the past. Time decelerated as hundreds of people panicked through the streets of Waikiki. As we made our way closer to home, and out of the city, we saw neighborhoods gathered outside looking to the skies over Waikiki. The eeriness progressed as we distanced ourselves from town, the neighborhoods had less and less people outside. We saw one of our own neighbors, he was on his way to a bomb shelter. We exchanged a few brief words, the last of which were “Good luck to you.”
I shut the door to my house, closed all the windows, retrieved my gas mask, and started filled water jugs. After group messaging my family, smothering my dog with kisses, and saying my last goodbyes, I could have died happy. But as the story goes, 38 minutes after the initial alert was sent to Hawaii, a second one was dispersed with the following message, “Emergency Alert There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.” As much as I secretly hope to go survivalist in this lifetime, it was bad timing on this one. It would have been awkward being the only person in my house with a gas mask when we’re all planning on “surviving” under the same roof. Nonetheless, the experience will be remembered for years to come. With nearly a million people on island, the last few moments were spent in countless ways. Each person had their final twelve minutes to enjoy how they chose (except one roommate we let sleep through it all). Hundreds of thousands of calls and texts left Hawaii to parents, children, sisters, brothers, lovers, and friends. It was a moment when nothing mattered except those you love. There was no saving us. On an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was time for making peace and letting go. Which may just be the resonating theme of 2018.