Hawaii vacation turns ‘pretty damned scary’

People in the Hawaiian islands received a frightening alert on Saturday, suggesting the islands were under attack. It proved to be a false alarm.Steve Smith was out taking photos of the sunrise on Kauai, the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, when an alert was accidentally sent, warning an enemy missile was headed for Hawaii.

“It was pretty damned scary,” he said, relating the experience while traveling with his companion, Susan Purnell, and their friends Kevin and Becky Huck of Asheville, N.C.

Smith spotted the warning on his phone, from U.S. Pacific Command, around 8 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, and awakened Purnell, then the Hucks.

“We woke to a beep on our cell phones that said ‘Ballistic missile threat on the way to Hawaii. This is not a drill.’ We were trying to figure out if it was real and where the heck were we going to seek shelter,” Purnell said.

Nobody at the front desk answered the telephone when they called for guidance but the concierge suggested staying away from windows.

“I was scared to death. All I could think of is we just spent two weeks in paradise and now I was going to another paradise,” Purnell said.

“I wasn’t worried about my own death at all. I’m 64 years old. I’ve had an incredibly great life. I wasn’t really worried about my own life,” she said, her voice breaking as she related calling her son as the four vacationers huddled in the bathroom of their condo.

Purnell was in the shower. One of the foursome sat on the toilet seat and another on the floor. Smith, who said he was skeptical from the start, stood.

“At first I didn’t believe it and then I reread it and I thought, ‘This is not good,’” Purnell said.

Thirty-eight minutes later, another alert flashed, stating the first was a false alarm, but the situation rattled Purnell so, that she was upset for days.

“I was crying. I called my son. I told my son how proud I was of the person he was and said he’d be fine and I called my sister,” Purnell said.

Her son, Ted Bowne of St. Petersburg, Fla., was comforting.

“My son said, ‘Mom, you’re the best mother anybody could have ever had and you’re going to get through this.’ I figured if I had a few minutes of life left, if this is it and I have 10 minutes until a bomb hits, I want to hear my son’s voice and I want to make sure my son knows how much I love him,” she said.

She telephoned her sister, Patti Baum, who works in Annapolis and who promised to find out if it the alert was true.

Purnell also has a stepson in Salisbury but said she didn’t have a chance to call him.

Smith and Huck remained calm during the 38 minutes before the alert was deemed false.

Smith said he wasn’t as worried as Purnell because there were no sirens blaring or people running off the beach to find cover.

“I was the first of our party to hear it. I looked at my phone and sure enough it said this was the real thing, that it was not a drill,” Smith said.

“Everywhere we looked on TV there was nothing unusual except ABC news or something like that, maybe Good Morning America, where this banner started up. But the banner wasn’t on every station. CNN had nothing. I thought, ‘This is too big a deal not to be on CNN.’ After about 30 minutes we got the all-clear,” Smith said.

“I kept saying, ‘There are no sirens.’ Kevin was looking at his Twitter feed. The scary thing is I realized somebody makes a mistake like this and the other party might fire back,” he said.

Smith called his son and left a message saying the alert was either a drill or real.

“I said, ‘Just in case, tell the grandkids we love them.’ At the end of the message I thought about it and I thought, ‘Well, that sounds stupid,’” Smith said.

Purnell said snow from the blizzard while she away caused some damage to her business, Kuhn’s Jewelers, but she had a new perspective after the scare and didn’t let it upset her.

“I thought I wasn’t going to sweat the small stuff,” she said.

“My deepest, most profound thought was, ‘Thank the good Lord this is nothing. It was a mistake. Maybe I should pay attention to what the preppers would say,” Smith said, referring to those who prepare, or prep, by stocking canned goods and water and creating safety shelters.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I should take them more seriously now.’”

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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