Waking at home early Saturday morning to the sound of his phone’s shrill emergency tone, University of Hawaii, Manoa, chemistry graduate student Parker Crandall read three terse sentences: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Crandall and his roommates rushed to find more details about the situation using their phones. They didn’t have a television or an internet connection because they were moving soon and had cut off their service early. After several minutes of debating whether the danger of a missile attack was real, the group decided to take action.
Crandall knew of a fallout shelter in the basement of the chemistry building Bilger Hall at the UH Manoa campus, located about a three-minute drive from their apartment on the island of Oahu. He had never been inside the shelter but he had heard stories of it and remembered it was marked by a sign fixed on its stairwell entrance featuring the symbol for radioactivity and the words “fallout shelter.”
The drive to the campus was “surreal,” Crandall says, as some drivers ran through red lights while other people seemed unaware of the alert and were exercising or mowing their lawns.
Crandall and his roommates arrived to find about 50 students and a couple of families with children gathered around the building, also trying to get into the shelter, which turned out to be locked. Crandall looked for an administrator who might have a key but couldn’t find anyone.
“At that point it had been about 20 to 25 minutes since we had gotten the message, so either it was fake or we were out of time to try anything else,” he says. Soon, news reports confirmed that the alert had been issued by mistake, although Crandall says they didn’t receive a correction to the phone alert until they had returned home, about 40 minutes after the original alarm.
Crandall and his friends’ experience wasn’t unique. Saturday’s false missile alert caught people in Hawaii unprepared, with many unsure what to do or where to go to find safety in the case of a conventional or nuclear attack. Visiting chemists found themselves turning to Twitter for information and to share their reactions. For chemists who work in the state, the false alarm raised questions about the best course of action when such an alert goes out while in a chemistry lab.
“Currently, there are no official or established nuclear fallout shelters in Hawaii,” says University of Hawaii spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl.
The fallout shelter sign for Bilger Hall was one of several on campus dating back to the Cold War that were scheduled for removal late last year, Meisenzahl says. Most of the signs were removed Saturday afternoon following the false alert incident.
According to what appears to be a community shelter plan assembled by the city of Honolulu in 1985, Bilger Hall and Bilger Annex may have been able to hold 50 and 390 people, respectively. Joseph T. Jarrett, current chair of the UH Manoa chemistry department, says that only UH facilities staff have keys to the Bilger Hall shelter, and former department chair Karl Seff told him that the shelter holds about 100 people and is essentially “an unfinished basement with a dirt floor.”
Since the Cold War ended, the space has had another use. In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health discovered hundreds of unmarked chemical containers stored in the shelter without proper permits. The EPA fined the university $505,000.
UH Manoa graduate student Aaron Thomas had a more subdued experience than Crandall’s on Saturday. Thomas was eating breakfast with his girlfriend and getting ready to head to lab when the alert flashed on their phones.
His initial thoughts were fatalistic: “Oh well there’s nothing I can do, we’re going to get hit by a missile and I’m at home eating waffles. I don’t have a shelter in my home.” Then he became skeptical. The state-run siren system, which sounds during disasters such as tsunamis, hadn’t gone off. He switched on his television, and after a few minutes of seeing normal political programming, he felt sure that the alert was false.
However, the alarm left him with questions, particularly regarding the UH Manoa fallout shelter and the chemistry building, which he hopes will be answered by university officials. “If the missile strike were real, what are my options?” he wondered. “Can I be safe in the chemistry building?”
Jon-Pierre Michaud, a professor at University of Hawaii, Hilo, located about 200 miles away from Manoa on the Island of Hawaii, says that sheltering in place may be appropriate for people in Hilo’s chemistry department. The campus’s chemistry building is situated in a geologically active area, putting it at risk for natural disasters such as volcanoes and earthquakes as well as hurricanes. Michaud, who was previously a toxicologist for the Hawaii Department of Health, says that because of those dangers, the Hilo chemistry department stores the bulk of their flammable and reactive chemicals in a brick bunker, away from the teaching and research labs. Any chemicals in the labs or stockroom are present in small quantities and in dilute solutions, he says. Another UH Hilo chemistry faculty member, Charles Simmons, says he’d consider directing his students away from the chemistry labs on the third floor and head to the large lecture halls on the ground floor.
Last October, the University of Hawaii sent students an eye-catching email with the subject line: “In the event of a nuclear attack.” The email shared a 30-slide powerpoint prepared by the state of Hawaii that provided information regarding the relative risk of a nuclear attack by North Korea, the safety offered by different floors and locations in generic buildings, and advice to shelter in place.
“The university’s emergency managers are in the beginning phases of identifying and assessing locations on the campuses,” to go to in the case of such an event, Meisenzahl says. He emphasizes that state and federal governments have yet to identify what precisely constitutes a fallout shelter, mainly because the threat of a nuclear or conventional attack has only developed in the last year.
On Tuesday, students received an email from UH President David Lassner promising to develop plans in the case of another missile alert. “Improved plans will include providing crystal clear instructions in advance and during an event on where to shelter,” Lassner said in the statement.
Reilly Brennan, a second-year UH Manoa graduate student who was alone in her apartment at the time of the alert, says she freaked out. She had recently returned from visiting her family in Los Angeles and her suitcases were still out. She began throwing clothes and toiletries in a suitcase and was convinced that the situation was real until she got through to her grandmother who was watching the news. Though shaken by the experience, she says she learned that the best course of action is to stay inside and she now keeps an emergency bag at the ready.
Brennan, Thomas, and Crandall are in the same research group at UH Manoa, led by Ralf Kaiser, and all agreed that if they were in lab during a real missile alert, they wouldn’t want to stay in close proximity to the lab’s chemicals and gas tanks. Brennan says she’d at least move to their separate desk area, which doesn’t have windows.
“If anything,” Crandall says, “this blunder showed us that in the event of a nuclear disaster or missile strike, we’re pretty unprepared.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Jan. 17, 2018, to correct Ron Hawley and his wife Nancy Rodd’s account following the false alert.