Lessons from 40 minutes of terror amid a false missile alarm in Hawaii

Posted January 18, 2018 11:11 a.m. EST

In the movie Bridge of Spies, the character of 1950s' Soviet spook Rudolf Abel is asked if he is afraid he might be executed by the U.S. government for his espionage activities or possibly bumped off by his KGB superiors after he is returned to Moscow in a prisoner swap.

"Would it help?" the unflappable Abel replies.

Last weekend, for nearly 40 agonizing minutes, people in Hawaii had every reason to believe they were about to die when what turned out to be a false alarm notified them that a potential nuclear missile attack likely launched from North Korea was headed their way.

Forty minutes. Barely enough to time to say goodbye to loved ones. And absolutely no time to escape from an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

An official at the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency made the wrong selection from the drop-down menu of a computer program that issued the dire warning -- "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

Gulp. By the way, the minion with the fickle finger has been -- cough, cough -- reassigned. To what? Kilauea Volcano lava tester?

Seek immediate shelter? Really? Where?

Those of us who hail from the baby boomer generation will remember those ridiculous "duck-and-cover" school drills from the 1950s and '60s where we practiced climbing under our classroom desks and draping our arms over our heads in case those Russkies ever got frisky and started firing off nuclear weapons in the general direction of Akron, Ohio.

Even to a third-grader, completely ignorant of physics, this seemed, well, stupid, as if a desk would somehow spare one the obvious fate of getting blown up by a massive radioactive bomb.

But there we were huddled on the floor rolling our eyes, perhaps wondering if we could get in one more recess before being reduced to dust.

Following the issuance of the Hawaii alert informing the public that "We're all doomed!" news accounts reported widespread panic, with terror-stricken people inundating shelters, roads jammed and a massive sense of helplessness.

Who can blame them? But did any of the fretting and hand-wringing help? What would you do?

It's hard to fathom being trapped on a collection of islands thousands of miles from any other land mass without any viable escape route.

Don't get too cocky. If you think you might have a way out if such a warning was issued in Tampa Bay suggesting we all might be transformed into toast, recall what the roadways look like when it appears a hurricane might be bearing down on us. You would be better off making sure you have those most precious of all commodities in a time like that -- plenty of ice and even more gin.

Movies have been made about this stuff, perhaps the best of them On the Beach, which deals with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust with only Australia spared the carnage -- but only briefly as radiation slowly makes its way down under.

The Aussies start drinking and living it up, knowing their days are numbered, which seems like a pretty reasonable plan. Even Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner find time to … well, you know.

No doubt during those horrific 40 minutes last weekend prayer was in abundant supply. No doubt as well, many farewell calls were made. And, no doubt, intimacies were shared for what was believed to be the last time.

It's a dreadful prospect to ponder, made all the more absurd by knowing the traumatic disruption to people's lives was caused by a hapless government functionary, a reminder that chaos in the streets can be triggered by ineptitude. Real wars, too.

True, life is short. And when you've been through a moment where for 40 minutes you had to confront your mortality, your life, the meaning of your very existence, even though the warning turned out to be unfounded, the experience must have had a profound influence on those who were convinced they were about to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death."

There's an awful lot of bellicosity in this world. A tyrant in North Korea blithely boasts of attacking the United States with nukes as if they are toys. Threats of fire and fury ensue from Washington.

Caught between the trans-Pacific bluster are places like Hawaii, where for 40 minutes the populace believed the end really was near.

And that is an epic disaster of public trust.

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