It was one year ago today that Hawaii residents got the stunning news on their cell phones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Some slept through it. Many didn’t get the message. Others chose not to believe.
Many others, however, saw the ominous alert and began to imagine the worst — certain death in a horrific explosion or a post-apocalyptic battle for survival and a grisly struggle with radiation poisoning.
Panic and terror reigned for many in Hawaii during the 38 minutes before the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency finally retracted its alert. It was seen in the people who abandoned their restaurant meals, in the erratic and dangerous driving on island roads, in the university students running for their lives and the man who beckoned a terrified child into a manhole.
Although the following stories come from only one corner of Oahu, they are typical of the experiences of many that day who felt their world was about to crash around them.
Iroquois Point is an oceanfront community and census-designated place that lies across the channel from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Once military housing, the refurbished 1960-era homes are now rented to the public under the name Kapilina Beach Homes. It is an ethnically diverse neighborhood with a mix of hard-working local folks, newcomers and military families.
The fact that Iroquois Point is so close to a major military installation was not a source of comfort to those who lived there one year ago, as many believed the area would be a likely target for any missile aimed at the islands.
And while the state civil defense siren system did not sound that Saturday morning — a clue for some that it wasn’t a real emergency — a siren at Pearl Harbor did wail within earshot of Iroquois Point residents a few minutes after the missile alert was sent out at 8:07 a.m.
To the residents there it was confirmation: This was no drill.
‘WORST DAY OF MY LIFE’
Vanessa Bear had just finished breakfast with her two young boys, then 1 and 3, when the alert buzzed on her phone. Unbelievable, she thought, but Bear knew a little about the state of the world. She knew about tensions with North Korea and President Donald Trump’s taunting of its leader, Kim Jong Un.
“This is it. It’s actually happening. It’s going down,” she recalled thinking.
Her husband was at work in Pearl City, and they previously had discussed what to do if anything like this ever happened. Their plan was to go to the Safeway supermarket, a solid building with food and supplies.
But on this day, her husband, who left their 103rd Street house for work early, had taken the vehicle with both child car seats. Bear said she wasn’t about to hit the road with all the crazy traffic rushing to find shelter.
“Leaving the house was not an option.”
So she grabbed the kids and headed to the bedroom, then started securing windows and gathering up any provisions she could find: food, water, batteries, flashlights.
Sensing his mother’s growing unease, her 3-year-old began to fuss and demand her attention. Through the din, Bear called her mother-in-law and her husband — “He was just about as much in panic as I was” — and logged on to a group chat with girlfriends in an attempt to get more information about what was going on. Nothing.
That’s when she turned on the TV and saw the same missile alert message rolling across the screen.
“Oh my God, this is real,” she thought.
It was at about the same time she heard the distant siren at Pearl.
“That was it,” she said, weeping as she remembered the dread that filled her soul. “At any moment here comes the bomb. I was thinking my children didn’t even have a chance to live. We’re all going to die together — without my husband.”
As she took up her phone to make a final goodbye call to her mom, the all-clear alert came through.
“I almost fell on the floor.”
Bear called her mom anyway. She hadn’t heard about the missile scare and didn’t really understand the magnitude of anguish and torment Bear had just endured.
“When I hung up the phone, I broke down in tears.” Bear and her 3-year-old sobbed together.
Bear was numb the rest of the day and felt uneasy for at least a week. She had trouble working her part-time job waiting tables and her mind kept wandering back to those moments of terror and uncertainty — as it often does to this day.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she said.
A FINAL SPIN ON THE ICE
Dawn Hopfe and her family make a point of always hugging and kissing when they part ways now.
The reason, she said, is because on that day one year ago — when they thought their world was coming to end in a fiery blast — they had not said goodbye.
“We were in a rush and hadn’t said anything to my husband before we left,” Hopfe said. He was sleeping, and she and her three daughters, then 10, 7 and 5, left their Gannet Avenue house early that morning for skating lessons at Ice Palace Hawaii in Halawa.
As the girls were preparing to get on the ice, cell phones went off en masse, sending a wave of “weird” energy across the warmup area, Hopfe said. It wasn’t long before the 20 or so kids in skates were ushered into an arcade room offering a little more protection.
At first Hopfe wasn’t able to reach her husband but he did call back in a few minutes.
“I had to tell my three daughters to say goodbye to Daddy and tell him you love him,” she remembered tearfully. The girls asked her why and she couldn’t lie: There’s a bomb, she told them, and this is your last chance to talk to him.
The girls were crying — and so was she. Chaos and agitation engulfed the room.
“I was hysterical, and (my husband) told me, ‘You have to stop and calm down,” she said.
It was the scariest moment of her life, Hopfe said, even surpassing the time as a pizza delivery driver when someone a gun to her head.
After a while the skating school director suggested letting the kids go on the ice, saying it probably wouldn’t matter where they were in the building if a missile hit.
Hopfe, who works as an Ice Palace cashier, watched as her kids skated with their friends around the ice and, in her mind, were minutes away from being killed.
“It was surreal,” she said. “I was shook to the core.”
Someone said they saw a tweet saying it was a false alarm, but Hopfe wouldn’t let herself believe it was over until the official Hi-EMA alert came across her phone.
“I was numb,” she recalled. “I don’t remember much of the rest of that day. We went straight home, and the girls went straight to their daddy.”
PEACE IN STAYING CALM
Robyn Israel Cox was asleep in her Iroquois Drive home when her cell phone shrieked. She grabbed the phone and turned it over, hoping for a few more minutes of sleep. But then her adult daughter burst into the room announcing that a ballistic missile was on its way.
Cox shot up in bed stunned. Her mind was reeling, her brain trying to process what she just heard. “It was so surreal, you know.”
There was no information on the television news, and outside was an eerie silence.
“I just kept thinking this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening.”
With a household consisting of herself, her daughter and two sons, plus four grandchildren ranging from age 1 to 8, she had a lot to worry about. She gathered everyone in the living room and decided that if a bomb was coming, there was nothing they could do to escape it.
“I was afraid to call my mom, worried that if I said goodbye to her it would give her a heart attack,” she recalled. “I did it anyway.”
She also called her children on the mainland, and they suggested gathering everyone together for prayer.
Cox said that while panic and hysteria swirled inside her head, she tried her best to stay calm on the outside. Then a peace came over her as she realized everything was out of her control.
“I felt that if this was going to be the last minutes of my life, I’m not going to spend it being afraid. I was very protective of those minutes, and I wanted the kids to feel normal.”
Cox had moved from Seattle to Hawaii three years earlier after her son was treated for cancer. She chose the islands for his health and wellness.
“And this is how it was going to end?”
To this day, sirens and noisy phone alerts take her back to that disturbing Jan. 13 morning. “I think, ‘Oh my God … ’ I definitely flash back to that day.”
A MAD DASH IN TRAFFIC
Michael Koenigsfest owns a transportation service and was driving a woman, her newborn and her parents from the Iroquois Point neighborhood to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
When the alert came across, both driver and passengers looked at their phones and then looked at each other.
“Is this for real?”
As the group was debating what to do and where to go, Koenigsfest’s wife, Genna, called from her Pearl City workplace. She was frantic.
“’You’ve got to get to my babies!’ she was screaming. ‘You’ve got to go home and be with my babies!’” he recalled.
Their 15-year-old daughter was looking after their sons, 14 and 12, at their Ibis Avenue home.
The airport might not even be open, if this was for real, they concluded, so they decided to make the 10-minute trek back to Iroquois Point.
At the next stoplight, a man pulled up with his window down and asked Koenigsfest, “Is this for real?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he peeled out going 100 mph.”
As they approached Iroquois Point, Koenigsfest called his children and told them to grab the family’s 30-day food supply and the dog and to get in the bathtub. He told them to stay there. Koenigsfest also kept an eye on the sky thinking he might spot the missile.
When he dropped off his passengers, he intended to carefully unload their baggage. Instead, it was closer to lobbing their things onto the front yard.
Upon reaching his own house, he drove up onto the lawn and parked in front of the front door. Once inside, he stood in the doorway of the bathroom and waited for the inevitable.
“Thinking back now,” he said, “in the time it took for all of this to unfold, we would have been long gone from the world.”
Meanwhile, his wife, who was driving home, was run off the road twice by motorists driving on the wrong side of the street.
“She could have died,” he said. “She was literally run into the bushes.”
In retrospect, Koenigsfest said he learned a few things: His wife should have sheltered in place instead endangering her life in a mad dash home. And his survival kit needs more bottled water.
“I also have a better understanding of what it is to be alive.”