News / Vancouver

Nuke missile alert hampers Vancouverites' Hawaii holidays

'I’m pleased not to be nuclear dust': Mistaken missile message confounds, bemuses B.C. vacationers.

Vancouver City Coun. Tim Stevenson jokingly hides under a beach towel on a beach in Maui, Hawaii after the state's emergency agency texted him and thousands an imminent missile attack warning on Saturday morning — later revealed to be a false alarm.

Courtesy Tim Stevenson/Facebook

Vancouver City Coun. Tim Stevenson jokingly hides under a beach towel on a beach in Maui, Hawaii after the state's emergency agency texted him and thousands an imminent missile attack warning on Saturday morning — later revealed to be a false alarm.

More than one Vancouverite holidaying in Hawaii this weekend was left with a mix of alarm and confusion after the state accidentally issued a ballistic missile alert Saturday.

The state's emergency officials texted hundreds of thousands of cellphones shortly after 8 a.m. local time with an ominous warning: "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

Despite correcting the error on Twitter 13 minutes later, those not on the platform had to wait 38 minutes before a retraction was texted.

One Vancouverite holidaying in Hawaii at the time was former Globe and Mail B.C. bureau chief and retired journalist Rod Mickleburgh — who received the alarming text on his first morning of an 11-day Kauai vacation.

"It was a like a loud Amber Alert — really loud and different," he told Metro in a phone interview from Hawaii. "I thought, what the f--- was that?!' … My wife went into the hotel office and was told something about a missile coming in.

"Nobody did anything, it was as if nothing had happened. Nobody rushed out to say a missile's coming, nobody rushed outside. I looked up at the sky, saw no missiles coming, and carried on."

It wasn't until Mickleburgh started reading about the false alarm on news sites that he realized, "Holy s--- this was a big deal."

Another prominent Vancouverite who received the alert was City Coun. Tim Stevenson, who last week revealed he won't seek re-election after 15 years in office.

"Got the ballistic missile alert here in Maui this morning," he wrote on Facebook. "We were told to take cover."

But with little nearby to protect him from imminent nuclear fallout — he was relaxing by the seaside at the time — the Vision Vancouver politician posted a photograph of himself with a protective towel jokingly draped over his head.

"Where to take cover on the beach?" he said. "This is the best I could do. People running hither and yon."

This Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, photo shows a highway median sign broadcasting a message of

Jhune Liwanag via The AP

This Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, photo shows a highway median sign broadcasting a message of "There is no threat" in Kaneohe, Hawaii.

After the alert was rescinded and the state admitted it had made a terrible mistake, the four-term councillor added, "I’m pleased not to be nuclear dust."

Other well-known British Columbians in Hawaii at the time of the apocalyptic butt dial include Stevenson's husband, Rev. Gary Paterson, the former moderator of United Church of Canada, Juno-nominated jazz singer and pianist Jennifer Scott, as well as former B.C. MLA and Member of Parliament Dawn Black.

"Well that was terrifying, impending missile attack — this is NOT a test," Black noted on Facebook. "And not corrected for 38 full minutes."

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Another Vancouverite who received the false alarm text was Steve Anderson, the founder of the digital rights non-profit Open Media.

"A government alert on my phone about impending destruction is my least favourite way to wake up in the morning," he wrote on Facebook. "I mostly just stared at the phone alert for several minutes whist contemplating my death.

"It was amazing that there was no news or correction for so long. Lots of frantic refreshing news websites and Twitter!"

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency issued a statement that the "false alarm" was the result of a "routine internal test" during a staff shift change.

"There was no ballistic missile and that there were no computer hacks to the (warning) system," the agency stated Saturday. "The cause of the false alarm was human error."

The state's governor apologized for the false alarm that alarmed thousands.

"I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused," Gov. David Ige wrote in a statement. "I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can do to immediately improve our emergency management systems."

Anderson added that U.S. President Donald Trump — who has ratcheted up tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea in recent months — increased the likelihood the warning was all too real, and doom imminent.

"Thanks Trump for making the world so dangerous that this alert actually felt plausible," he observed.

Rod Mickleburgh poses for a selfie in Hawaii, in January 2018.

Courtesy Rod Mickleburgh

Rod Mickleburgh poses for a selfie in Hawaii, in January 2018.

For Mickleburgh, the whole false alarm — while "surreal" in retrospect and fodder for social media punchlines — was "frankly a very scary message" that took him back to his Cold War childhood.

"Thinking about it, the alert brought back a lot of unwanted memories about living through the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War, when duck-and-cover exercises were very real," he noted. "You'd go to school and didn't know if you were going home.

"We really didn't know what was going to happen; you thought, 'This could be my last day.'"

In Hawaii, even though he was fairly certain it was not nuclear armageddon — since no sirens were sounding — the thought did occur to him later that he might have traded his "appallingly bad" hotel coffee for "at least their best glass of wine."

"I wouldn't be going out on a satisfied stomach," he quipped. "But the location was lovely, so there is that — if you're going to be hit, at least go out looking at palm trees and beautiful wooded hills in paradise, rather than a rainy, grim Vancouver morning."

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