Trouble in paradise: Student reflects on experiencing Hawaii’s false missile alarm

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Cooper Kinley's Hawaiian selfie while hiking on a mountaintop while in Hawaii. (Photo by Cooper Kinley | Collegian Media Group)

For 38 terrifying minutes on Jan. 13, residents and tourists in Hawaii feared that a ballistic missile was about to destroy them. Among them was Cooper Kinley, sophomore in finance and Collegian photographer.

Kinley was vacationing on the island of Maui with his family to “recharge” after a long year at the time of the false alarm.

“I’d even shut my phone off when I got there just to disconnect,” Kinley said. “I heard the alert sound from my dad’s phone and thought it was a severe weather alert, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”

Kinley and his father watched as the alarm played on every news station. A relaxing vacation had just become a potentially life-or-death crisis. They made a conscious decision not to wake his mother, who was asleep in the next room, since they thought it would be kinder to let her sleep.

“At that point in time, I was quite shaken, but I realized that if I broke down and started panicking, that would be the least effective thing I could do,” Kinley said. “I started thinking about how we would survive. We had plenty of water in the house and the pool. We had food in the pantry. We started to think ‘how can we get a boat or a plane and get off the island?’ and ‘what can we use as a weapon?’”

Kinley spoke to a Hawaiian resident who was in a store when the alarm sounded. Everyone looked at their phones, dropped what they were holding and sprinted out of the store simultaneously.

After about ten minutes, Kinley took to Twitter to find out more information. There, he discovered some people saying the alert was a false alarm.

“When I saw those tweets, I thought we were probably fine, but I was still on edge,” Kinley said. “Missiles can cross the globe in less than half an hour. So no matter the case, we were going to find out if the threat was real pretty quickly.”

A full 38 minutes after the alert sounded, a follow-up message officially announced that it was a false alarm. In less than an hour, Kinley and countless others faced the reality of death, a sobering experience, only to learn there was nothing to fear.

“The time between when we got the alert and when we found out it was a false alarm was brief,” Kinley said. “But those brief moments felt like an eternity and consisted of some pretty intense thoughts. You feel so small and insignificant, like you’re just a political pawn. You’re not a person, you’re a number in the body count.”

According to The New York Times, the emergency management employee responsible for the false alarm is working a temporary reassignment. Their identity has not been made public. To prevent future mistakes of this kind, Hawaii implemented two changes to its notification system: a second employee must confirm any alert, and a template to correct mistakes is in place.

Though the ordeal was terrifying, Kinley has since reflected on his experience. He said he has realized that he should make time for his family and tell people the things he wants to say.

“Now, I can tell this story and laugh at it in some cynical sense,” Kinley said. “Someone made a mistake, it caused a bunch of panic and it was corrected fairly quickly. However brief it was, it’s the life or death uncertainty that gets to you. The issue is that a lot of people will never realize how a situation like that actually feels — quite literally having your death warrant show up as a push notification on your phone.”

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Hi there! I’m Leah Zimmerli, community desk co-editor, relentless optimist, and lover of big and small dogs. I’m a junior in political science and journalism from Overland Park, Kansas. I hope to bring you pieces that challenge you, that broaden your mindset, and help you learn more about your K-State community.