Posts Tagged ‘Seek immediate shelter’

Thinking I was about to die …

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

It was around 8.10 am, on Saturday 13th January 2018. Peta and I were sitting having breakfast with seven Americans and two Canadians in Wailuku, central Maui – one of the Hawaiian islands. We were in particular conversation with a Hawaiian. She was a criminal prosecutor on the Islands. She had explained that her 12 year old daughter was a talented tennis player, and that she was competing at a competition nearby, escorted by her dad. The mum explained that she used to go to her daughter’s matches, but she found it a little stressful and was concerned that she transferred this stress to her daughter.  All the other people, including us, were on holiday from further afield.

Part way through the conversation, her mobile phone buzzed. As she was picking it up, two other mobile phones in the room also buzzed. The mother’s face suddenly took on a look of complete horror, “Oh my god, oh my god” she said, and started fumbling with the key pad. “What should I do, when’s it going to happen?” “Let’s stay calm”, said an elderly gentleman from Texas who was also perusing his phone. The tennis mum stood up, and then sat down again, “What should I do?” she asked, looking at Peta and I – but Peta and I were completely in the dark …

“What’s the matter?”, I asked, keen to understand what had brought on this sudden panic. “There’s a bomb on the way to hit us” she said, and handed us her phone. There was a message across the screen which read, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”. The same message had appeared on other people’s phones. The owner of the hotel turned on the TV and that same message was on the TV screen.  I now understood the panic.

My first thoughts were, “Well, if it us who get hit, how long have we got left?” A perfectly sensible thought for someone who likes detail and facts – but I had no way of answering the question.

My next thoughts turned to our children. Should I contact them? If I had a few minutes or hours to live, did I want to say a few words to them online whilst I still had the chance? Or if I thought that it probably wasn’t going to happen, did I want to leave it so that I didn’t unduly concern them?  This was a more helpful thought process as it made me consider whether I thought the threat was real or not.

Was it real? Could North Korea really have set this ballistic ball rolling? Surely not? But the messages on phones and TVs seemed real and pretty convincing …

I decided not to contact the kids – 60/40 or perhaps 70/30 on the balance of probabilities (based on little or no evidence – so it was more likely a gut feeling) I didn’t believe this missile attack would occur, or if it did, we wouldn’t be ‘hit’. Therefore, to attempt to contact them would only raise their concerns.

Then I noticed the gardener – what about him? As we sat around anxiously and strangely surreally discussing how many minutes or hours we had left to live, he was oblivious. I watched him waving his trimmer from side to side like a scythe, headphones on, in a state of contentment with no idea at all as to what was going on. He was in his own world. I started considering whether his world was a better place to be. I asked the hotel proprietor, “What about your gardener?” Was it best to leave him there, oblivious to our unsettling reality, or should we let him know what was going on? Did we have a right to not tell him? Would it be kinder to leave someone so they didn’t know? It was weird. He was physically so close yet emotionally so far away. But ultimately I left it to the proprietor – I had other priorities.

So where would I find further evidence as to whether this ballistic weapon was on its way? I needed to access the internet to see if I could find anything to support or negate my view. Before that though, I wanted a coffee.

I went to pour myself one – but this took me too close to the windows for the proprietor’s liking. “I need to ask you to move away from the window, in case there is an explosion”, she requested quietly and calmly. “I’m not sure the proximity of a window will have too much of a consequence if we take a hit from this missile”, I responded with a slightly nervous laugh, “but I will move away once I have a coffee”.

We had already established that the hotel did not have a shelter, nor was there one nearby – so we couldn’t action the one piece of advice in the text. We all congregated in a corridor as close to the centre of the property as possible, away from any windows – apart from the Canadians, who had disappeared to I know not where.

I looked up how to contact Sky News and sent them a brief email as to what was happening as there was nothing on Sky News. If I really was going to get blown up, then why not be blown up live on Sky, I thought – I’ve discovered I can get a bit blasé when I think I’ve only got minutes left to live. They didn’t respond (and still haven’t responded, so I’ll not be contacting them again next time this happens to me … I’ll try the BBC next time).

I had been searching the internet for about a minute when, about 10 minutes after the initial alarm, the elderly Texan who had suggested staying calm said, “It’s a false alarm – I have found it on the internet”. He then read out further details. I guess my only emotion should have been huge relief at this point, but it wasn’t – there was some relief, but I was also mildly cross that he had found it before I did.  The emerging story was that apparently someone had ‘pressed the wrong button’.

Photo courtesy of

There were deep breaths and visible relief, and then it all became mildly funny. Slowly we returned to the breakfast table. Eventually the Canadians returned (although they didn’t seem to find anything about it the slightest bit funny).

Around 8.50, the phones were set off again (which made one of the Canadians swear) – this time with a message to say that the first message had been a false alarm. I wondered how or why it had taken them 38 minutes to find the right button to press to say it was a mistake. But perhaps they had to make that button – as I guess they never intended to press the first button in error, so why would they create the second button to say they shouldn’t have pressed the first one? Anyway, that’s their problem …

What did I reflect on?

  • Even without the false alarm, Hawaiians are concerned about being targeted by North Korea – but this made them share their concern. And I guess it’s the same the world over with people hiding their own personal alarm and concerns well – until something happens to trigger them, or, more importantly and helpfully, until someone asks the right questions and listens to them. We can all do that.
  • I should have spent more time with Peta during the period of uncertainty. She didn’t have the same confidence that it was a false alarm, and would have preferred me not to have spent time looking for evidence on the internet. I get that, and it also illustrates how different people and personalities function.
  • How the Texan ‘beat me’, but that’s just my competitiveness!
  • Technology is wonderful, and it can be very, very useful – but people using in this type of situation must be competent
  • I wouldn’t have told the gardener – and if it happens to me again I hope I am somewhere with my headphones on, in blissful ignorance …

But what would you do in that situation if you thought you might only have 10 minutes left to live?

I know, it’s a very unfair question. Impossible to put yourself in that position? Probably. It’s a bit like footballers practicing penalties for play-off games and cup competitions – you can’t create the required circumstances, so they don’t really know how it will go on the day.

Four days later we were on a plane leaving Maui, and one guy on the plane had a shirt with the words, “I survived the Hawaiian ballistic missile attack”. Peta pointed to it; I laughed out loud. “Yes, we’re still here” she said.