A "human error" caused alerts advising Hawaiians to “seek immediate shelter” from an incoming ballistic missile to be sent to everyone on the island.
Residents of the island state woke Saturday morning to emergency notices lighting up their mobile phones about a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii” and the warning that “this is not a drill” but an extreme alert.
An audio warning was played on local television and radio stations.
Those who saw the messages took them as genuine, with one journalist on holiday in Hawaii tweeting that people sought shelter and were crying.
Teacher Meredyth Gilmore also used Twitter to share her experience of receiving the alert.
Videos online show people running in the street in search of shelter and what appears to be a number of people descending into the sewer via a manhole.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard, the state’s emergency management agency, and the National Weather Service were among the first to confirm that the alerts had been sent by mistake.
Authorities reversed their warning with a second alert send 38 minutes later announcing “no missile threat or danger,” and “false alarm.”
Hawaii's governor David Ige told CNN that human error was responsible for the alert being sent out.
"It was a mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift, and an employee pushed the wrong button," he said.
On Twitter he wrote "While I am thankful this morning’s alert was a false alarm, 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".
He met with the state defence department and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HEMA) to determine what caused this morning’s false alarm and to prevent it from happening again.
Hours later, he added (sic):
"Today is a day most of us will never forget. A terrifying day when our worst nightmares appeared to become a reality. A day where we frantically grabbed what we could, tried to figure out how and where to shelter and protect ourselves and our ohana, said our “I love yous,” and prayed for peace.
"I know firsthand how today’s false notification affected all of us here in Hawaii, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused. I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can to immediately improve our emergency mngment systems, procedures and staffing."
He confirmed that direction had been given for "immediate changes" to take place and that "We are doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again."
Hawaii has been on high alert since United States president Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, began exchanging nuclear threats. Estimates suggest it would take around half an hour for a missile launched from North Korea to reach Hawaii. State officials said that residents here would have as little as 12 minutes to find shelter once an alert was issued.
The island began staging monthly air-raid drills, complete with sirens, in December.
Governor Ige went on to say that a de-escalation of tensions with North Korea should be a priority, saying: "We must also do what we can to demand peace and a de-escalation with North Korea, so that warnings and sirens can become a thing of the past.".
The Federal Communications Commission said on Saturday it was launching a “full investigation” into a false wireless emergency alert that a ballistic missile was headed for Hawaii, the chairman of the commission said.
Hawaii has been on high alert given claims by North Korea that its newest intercontinental ballistic missile could fly 13,000 kilometers. If true, that would put even the mainland US within range from Pyongyang. The isolated nation conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3, and launched more than a dozen missiles in the past year.
HEMA spokesman told Buzzfeed that the agency had been performing a standard drill and normally an alert would not be sent. They added they suspect a technical issue occurred, saying: "We have absolutely no indication it was any kind of hacking."
It is not currently know why the words "this is not a drill" was included in the message that the Hawaiian authorities say was a drill.
Trump was informed of the situation while the situation was unfolding. He has not so far made any comment on the mistake.