‘Is this it?’: Chinan mother feared for her life

An n living in Hawaii has told how her frightened teenage son alerted her that a missile was apparently on its way.

Donna Smallwood, 49, was mistakenly warned of an imminent attack in an alert issued to Hawaii cellphone users about 8.07am local time on Saturday.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The message also appeared on Hawaii television stations, according to news reports. The alert was officially cancelled about 38 minutes later.

The frightening mistake, which Governor David Ige later attributed to a state employee’s errant push of a button, prompted outrage and calls for an investigation.

Ms Smallwood said she thought “Is this it?” as she sheltered in a closet with her two children. While relieved it turned out to be a false alarm, she was angry about having been put through the fear in the first place.

“I’m so mad,” she said. “The emotional rollercoaster was something no one should have to go through, ever.”

“The things that go through your mind: Is this it?”

Ms Smallwood, a businesswoman and the administrator of the ns in Hawaii Facebook page, was outside her house at Ewa Beach, a Honolulu suburb, when she heard a siren sound from the golf course next door.

Inside, her 13-year-old son, Connor, was walking down the stairs saying, “Mum, I’m scared”.

He was shaking as he showed her a text saying a ballistic missile was heading for Hawaii and to seek emergency shelter.

Ms Smallwood said she was “freaking out on the inside” but trying to keep calm.

“I got my 11-year-old, Pierce, up and he was like, ‘Mum what’s this on my phone?’ ” She called her husband, Nick, who had not been notified. He “bunkered down with the guys in the clubhouse”.

Ms Smallwood and her sons sat in a closet until an n friend, Gina Ornellas, and children Noah, 14, and Sophia, 11, knocked on the door.

Thirty minutes after the initial warning, a friend married to a policeman posted that it was a false alarm.

Ms Smallwood said the ordeal was terrifying.

“Your mind goes 100 miles an hour, trying to problem solve: Is it real, isn’t it real, do we ring people, do we tell people we love them?”

Her curious 11-year-old was looking up statistics online about how many people could die if a missile hit.

Ms Smallwood, who is from Broken Hill, lived on the Gold Coast for 20 years and has lived in Hawaii for 15 years, said some locals had grabbed food from shops without paying. One neighbour shoved their children into a manhole.

She is angry the government didn’t have much of an emergency plan. “It was just a huge mess.”

“You think that you’re protected and that the government here will look after you and have all the right steps set in place, but they obviously didn’t.

“It’s very unnerving and makes me kind of want to go, I want to go home again now. I’ve had enough of this, this isn’t fun any more.”

Danielle Smith was standing on a beach with her husband and two children when a sea of mobile phones buzzed with news of the attack.

“Suddenly about 50 phones went off around me on the beach,” Ms Smith said from Hawaii on Sunday afternoon.

“Everyone’s just looking around me going, ‘What do you do? What do you do?’.”

Ms Smith, who works as a photographer for Fairfax Media in Sydney, had been on holiday for about a week-and-a-half with her husband, Nick Conrick, their eight-year-old son, Nixon, and 13-year-old daughter, Ebony.

The family had driven from their accommodation at Waikiki at 6am to catch a glimpse of the famous swell.

“We were pretty much helpless, standing on the beach just going, ‘What the hell do you do?'” Ms Smith said.

As reality set in, they desperately sought out locals for advice on what to do, but many were just as clueless. Eventually someone herded them into the local school, Sunset Beach Elementary School, where they “bunkered down”, with nothing left to do but wait.

“We were just sitting in there and literally it was just silent, no one was talking,” she said.

“It was just fingers crossed, I guess, just sitting there waiting.”

A spokesman for the military command said the warning message had been sent accidentally.

David Ige, the governor of Hawaii, said in a statement: “The public must have confidence in our emergency alert system. I am working to get to the bottom of this so we can prevent an error of this type in the future.”

Mr Ige told reporters the mistake was the result of human error and someone at the state emergency management agency pushed the “wrong button” during a shift change, CNN reported.

Images and postings on social media showed people flooding area highways, crowding into police stations and seeking shelter in concrete structures including parking garages. One unconfirmed Twitter posting showed a resident lowering children through a manhole in a sidewalk.

The US Federal Communications Commission said it was launching a “full investigation” into the mishap, which sent panic throughout Hawaii.

The incident happened amid high international tensions over North Korea’s development of a ballistic nuclear weapon.

North Korean President Kim Jong-un has threatened to unleash his country’s growing missile weapon capability against US states or the US territory of Guam, prompting President Donald Trump to threaten tough actions against Pyongyang.

As the event unfolded, Mr Trump was wrapping up a round of golf at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida.

He returned to his resort, Mar-a-Lago, where the White House said he was briefed on the situation.

Hawaii, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean, has a population of about 1.4 million people, according to the US Census Bureau, and is home to the US Pacific Command, the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and other elements of the American military.

In November, Hawaii said it would resume monthly statewide testing of Cold War-era nuclear attack warning sirens for the first time in at least a quarter of a century, in preparation for a possible missile strike from North Korea, state officials said at the time.

Mr Ige said the false warning was “a mistake made during a standard procedure at the changeover of a shift and an employee pushed the wrong button”.

At a news conference, Mr Ige and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi promised that no single person will be able to cause such an error in the future.

Mr Miyagi said a rule has already been put in place to mandate that two people be present before the button is pushed to alert for a drill or emergency.

He also said a cancellation message template would be created for such an error scenario so a delay like Saturday’s did not happen again.

The false alert prompted US military officials to scan systems that monitor missile launches; they determined almost instantly that there was no threat. But officials described confusion over whether or how the military should correct a state-issued alert.

Hawaii struggled to issue a comprehensive correction. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency transmitted its first “no missile threat” message within 12 minutes of the mistaken alert, but that revision only went out on the agency’s Twitter account.

It wasn’t until 8.45am that the agency was able to issue a stand-down message across the same cellphone and cable television networks that had spread the initial, erroneous warning.

By that time, officials from Hawaii including Democrat Tulsi Gabbard had taken it upon themselves to distribute stand-down messages on social media.

“What happened today is totally inexcusable,” Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat, said in a posting on his Twitter account. “The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”

With Reuters, The Washington Post and Miriam Webber