On Saturday morning, January 13th, my husband Joe got up early and went to a coffee shop.
As he was sipping his drink, he got the emergency alert on his phone:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Hawaii has been warned about this for months. Newspapers released information on what to do should we find ourselves the victims of a nuclear attack.
The other coffee shop patrons got the message on their phones at the same time, and everyone looked around at each other, wondering, “Is this real?”
Someone said, “I have AT&T” and someone else said, “I have Verizon” and someone else said “I have Sprint.”
Once they realized the warning had gone out on all carriers, it began to sink in that this could be serious, it could be real. Joe left the coffee shop, which is a few blocks from our home, and broke into a run. My little sister, Rebecca, called him while he was running home. She was panicked—she lives a few miles from us, and was alone. Joe was panicked, too. We’d been told that if a missile is detected, we have less than 15 minutes to prepare.
Joe came into the house where I was sleeping. He gently woke me up and said, “Honey, this is probably the craziest way to wake up, ever…but I need you to wake up. There is a missile coming toward Hawai’i. I am not joking. This is real. This is happening. We need to take cover.”
I have had a reoccurring nightmare for years about a nuclear attack, wherein Joe and I lay in bed holding each other, knowing it’s going to happen. There’s a boom and a bright light, and then I wake up. I needed a moment to decide if this was real or another nightmare.
I leapt out of bed and immediately took the phone to speak to Rebecca. We were both kind of distracted, because we were closing windows. We tried to call our two older sisters (they live on the mainland), but they didn’t answer. Eventually, she said she was going to call our dad. I told her I would keep trying our sisters.
We were both on speakerphone, and she said, “I am going to go now.” I remember thinking, “What if this is the last time I talk to my sister?” I said, “Goodbye Shoo [my nickname for her]. I love you.” There was a long, heavy pause and then, her voice breaking, she said, “I love you.”
Joe and I threw our queen-sized mattress up against our two front windows, knowing that doing so would likely do nothing in the event of a real blast. We both seemed eerily calm, which I thought was strange. I stopped and grabbed Joe to hug him and noticed his heart was pounding, beating rapidly and wildly. I thought, “Okay. We’re not that calm.” We pulled apart and I said, “Are we actually going to die today?” He didn’t answer, he just hugged me again.
I was running around, trying to do things. I briefly thought to put an ID on my body, but dismissed it. I told Joe that we should fill containers with water. It had been about 10 to 12 minutes at this point and he simply said, “No. Just come sit with me.”
We sat on the couch together.
Our apartment is not set up to protect us from something like this. We have several large windows, one of which does not close at all. The doors to other rooms are slatted, so as to allow the Hawaiian tradewinds to come wafting through.
We texted family quickly and then just sat there, snuggled together, hearts pounding, and still wondering if this was real. I made some stupid comment about how I felt like I was living in a disaster movie. I briefly got on Facebook, thinking maybe I would see that everything was okay, that this was a false alarm, but the messages just terrified me more.
People were saying goodbye. I saw a post that said, “We are going to die. Remember us.”
I turned it off. I wanted to cry, but could only get teary-eyed for a few seconds at a time. It was so surreal—fear instilled with denial. One minute I would think, “I am going to die. I am going to die, and it’s going to be okay.” And another minute I would think, “This has to be fake. This cannot be happening. Where are the sirens? This isn’t real.” My brain couldn’t grasp onto any certain reality.
I recall having slow, strange thoughts running through my mind like molasses—“slow like honey” to quote Fiona Apple. I thought about the fact that I’d recently gotten a promotion at work and had just moved into my new office, and then immediately felt silly for caring about something so ludicrous. I thought of my older sisters…I hoped they’d be okay losing two of their sisters at once. I thought of my dad and how scared he must have been to get that call. I thought of my students, some of them no doubt far away from family in the University of Hawaii dorms.
I turned to Joe and tried to joke, “Should we be doing the thing where we confess stuff?” He smiled and said, “I don’t have anything to confess. You?” I shook my head. He put his arm around me, I put my head on his shoulder. We didn’t talk other than to say, “I love you” every 30 seconds.
A few minutes later, we received a text from a friend that said that he’d heard it might be false.
For some reason, this is when my body truly reacted. I could hear the blood pumping through my body because my heart was pounding. I looked down at my torso, and my entire body was shaking.
We quickly jumped on our phones, trying to find any information. On Twitter, we saw Tulsi Gabbard’s post that the warning had been a mistake. A minute later, news sources were releasing statements saying that there was no missile.
The experience took place in a span of about 25 to 35 minutes. I know some people who woke up to two alerts…one about a missile, and another one saying it was false, so they didn’t have these panicked moments. Clearly, that was a very different experience, as they had immediate relief. Many others, like us, were caught between pure terror and disbelief. Some never believed it and weren’t scared. Some panicked and freaked the f*ck out. Some were creepily calm but still petrified, like us. All types of reactions are okay. We are all human. We were scared. Truly, that’s the most terrified I’ve ever been in my entire life.
We later talked to a friend who was at Straub Medical Center and she relayed that there was panic amongst the nurses and doctors. She said it was complete chaos. I can’t imagine the panic our military members here on the island must have been feeling.
I kept thinking of Syria in those slow, dark moments. I thought of people who live in fear of this sort of thing every day, and how we, as privileged Americans, rarely think this way. I thought of Trump and how much I blame him and other violent men who make us live in fear. And I was also strangely grateful that if I was going to die, at least I was with Joe.
People are going to joke about it and there are already hilarious memes that have made me laugh. Levity is good, a relief. Joe and I joked inappropriately after we found out it was false…about how we threw our mattress up in vain against the window, or how I tried to aluminum foil our open bathroom window that won’t entirely close. (I really did. I’d read you should saran wrap windows for protection against radiation, but we didn’t have saran wrap.). But it was scary. Joe and I are both calm, non-reactive people in a crisis, and even we were extremely fearful.
It was downright petrifying in the most real way. I can’t convey that enough.
As I’m writing this, it’s been over 48 hours, and we’re all still talking and thinking about it. I’m starting to feel normal again, but I’ve had so many different reactions. Anger, fear, resentment, gratefulness, incredulity.
I had to confront a man running his mouth loudly in the supermarket last night. He was bragging that he “knew all along” it was fake, and that he couldn’t believe all the “idiots” who believed it. He’d been in the military for 20 years, after all, and he knows better than to believe a phone alert that went out state-wide. He just laughed and laughed at all the people panicking. I lost my sh*t. Legit lost it. I’d already heard a few people speaking this way and it infuriated me.
I angrily said, “Does this make you feel better? Do you feel just sooo much smarter and above everyone else? Do you feel big and important and superior belittling people who were truly scared for their lives…for the lives of their children?” (I was so pissed that I stammered and stuttered it all, likely sounding slightly incoherent…but I think the general sentiment was conveyed.)
I am so frustrated with this type of response; it is complete, blustering ego, the kind of blustering ego that contributed to our panic (i.e., from Trump and Kim Jong Un). Note—this is not how the majority of people are responding, but the condescension exhibited by certain people needs to be called out.
I’ve also seen people trying to shove the “gratefulness” angle onto everyone. As in, “Stop complaining! Now we’ll be more prepared! This was actually a good thing!” This is toxic positivity at its finest. If some people feel that way, that’s a-okay. People feel how they feel, and I don’t want to take away anything that provides others with comfort. But I don’t have to feel grateful that I thought I would die. I really, really don’t.
I do want to say thank you and mahalo nui loa to friends and family who called, for the sweet outpouring of Facebook and Instagram messages, for the fact that my story has been shared far and wide because people care to hear it, and for the sweet and loving messages from people all over the country and over the island, checking in on one another. I feel the love, and the aloha is strong in these islands. I hope everyone is hugging their loved ones a little harder today.
And, I hope once we have a little clarity and time away from this, we can start conversations that discuss the intense militarization of these occupied (stolen) lands and how that puts island residents and Native Hawaiians in harm’s way. I hope we can have frank conversations about violent men that, no doubt, contributed to this scare.
We have to talk about that. We have to.
This treacherous experience brought clarity for some. One friend relayed that they had the realization that they would die alone, depressed, and angry, so they are going to seek therapy to change their life. Another confessed that they were forced to face their alcoholism and went to their first AA meeting the day after the scare.
For now, I’m going to go for a walk in the beautiful Hawaiian sunshine. I’m going do mundane things like work and clean my house. And I’m going to be happy to do those things. I know that these feelings of relief and gratefulness will quickly leave me, and soon I’ll be complaining about laundry and bills.
But for right now, I’m perfectly happy being boring and mundane.
That’s my story.
Author: Katie Caldwell
Images: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron