It was your typical Saturday morning in Hawai’i, until it wasn’t. The sun was shining, my daughter and I were preparing for a trip to Hawai’i Kai to visit some new-to-us, white sandy beaches for a few hours before we headed to one of her school friend’s birthday parties.
My husband, her father, a U.S. Navy Sailor is deployed, so as I was gathering our beach items, I was also checking my phone to see if I’d gotten an email from him during the night... so my phone was in my hand, thankfully.
We were lazily and leisurely roaming around the house, a typical weekend morning, just taking our time, when I got the text alert.
BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII, SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Now, we haven’t lived in Hawai’i that long, but it has been long enough to know that this was different from a normal emergency alert. This was not the first Friday air raid siren drill. This was a big and scary reality slapping me directly in the face at 8:08 a.m.
This was an immediate, what in the holy hell is going on...
It was fairly early in our morning and I was in a t-shirt and underwear still, no pants.
Our four-year-old was barely even dressed, she had just gotten out of her pajamas.
And suddenly I was facing a reality that never, not once, not in a million years had I thought I would be facing... and no, despite the reality of the monthly siren drills, I had not prepared for.
What do you do? Where do you go?
Let me tell you... for most of us here in Hawai’i, there are no good answers to those questions.
In the years around the Cold War, there were fewer people on this island but certainly more of a conversation about what to do in case of an attack. Even with the currently heightened global tensions, and even though we live in a military community, the conversation (and preparations) here in Hawai’i today, for most families, is nonexistent. Most communities do not have a fallout shelter anywhere close enough to be able to reach inside the few short moments we would have between a warning and actual missile strike.
What I was left with in this moment on Saturday morning was a paralyzing fear. A fear greater, and more overwhelming than I thought humanly possible to have.
So I gathered a few things as quickly as I could, brushed my teeth and changed my pants ― twice... the things that go through your mind in these minutes that feel like hours would amaze you. It’s almost laughable if it weren’t so damn scary. When the text first came through, I first threw on a pair of old sweatpants... and then, as I got clothes for my daughter and was trying to figure out where in our house we were going to “shelter in place,” I realized... “what if”... and I changed into a pair of jeans. Like I said, you cannot control where your mind goes in these moments.
And so we headed into the only place in our home I could think would be even remotely safe “in case” ― an inside closet underneath our stairs... filled with pillows and blankets and holiday wrapping paper and pictures of our family we hadn’t yet hung on our walls.
And we sat there, with my own father on speaker phone trying to find out any information he could and trying to be the calm voice of reason I really needed, and the TV loud enough in the living room so I could hear any news reports or updates breaking in (and there was nothing, by the way... no breaking in, no alerts, no updates), my computer up trying to find out any information I could...
And what did I think about in those grueling 38 minutes?
I thought about how I would say goodbye to the sweet face of my four-year-old daughter... if I would have time to say I love you just one more time.
I thought about never being able to see anyone in my family ever again.
I thought about the hard reality that neither my daughter nor I would get to say goodbye to our sailor, her dad, my husband and best friend.
I prayed that if this happens, I hope it’s painless and quick so that my daughter didn’t have any suffering.
I prayed that any blast we would face would not tear her from my arms... that she would feel safe until the end.
I prayed that this was a mistake.
I wondered about the eerie silence outside ― no planes taking off from the airport, no cars on the raised freeway just above our house, no air raid siren going off.
I prayed to find the right words to re-assure my child when I couldn’t find the words to even re-assure myself.
I thought about the smell of my little girl’s hair, as I sat there with her on my lap, wondering if there was ever such a sweet smell as that of your child.
I wondered where the missile was going to strike and what the blast radius was and what the fallout from that would be for my state, my community, my neighborhood and our world.
I wondered if anyone would even survive.
I wondered if we would hear it coming, like actually hear the sound of the missile as it was about to strike.
I wondered if we would be safer here, in this closet, or in our car trying to get to the mountains, or trying to head to base.
I thought that base would be the worst place to be right now, but that we were very near base and likely the pretty close to a target area.
I thought that my daughter’s hands never had looked so small to me before this moment and I thought about this being as big as they, and she, would ever get.
I sat in that closet and thought the unimaginable, prayed for calm and strength, and for a painless death.
Yes, that is right: I sat in that closet, a mother holding her child, praying for a painless death.
And slowly I started getting messages and tweets from friends here on island that this is a false alarm, a mistake, a drill. Nothing at this point was still confirmed or unconfirmed. But we opened up the closet door just a little bit ― and we waited.
And then here’s what I’ve been thinking since that 38 minutes was up, and we were told, officially: oops. Yes, that’s what the explanation felt like - an “oops.” Not, “it was meant to be a drill.” But that it was a MISTAKE.
I’ve been thinking that I still can’t shake this fear, this crazy reality that at any moment we could find ourselves having to rush back into that closet.
I was thankful that it was a weekend, and that I was with my daughter, and not halfway across the island at work while she was at school. I cannot imagine not being with her, holding her, comforting her.
I was reminded that we are not alone in having to face this harsh reality; there are countries all over our world who are facing missile strikes regularly, and not just the threats of them... actual strikes. With people not even having time to find a closet to hide in.
I got angry because if ANY of these world leaders who were making the decision to launch a strike anywhere, for whatever reasons, were fathers who had to sit in a closet with their child and explain to them this fear, had to look at their child IN THE FACE knowing it might be the last time they ever see them... they’d think twice about giving that order. I’m not saying they still wouldn’t, but when it becomes real and human... you’d have to be a monster not to have it give you pause.
And I’ve been battling lashing out at those people on the mainland or across the globe who dare say to me and anyone else in Hawai’i: “get over it” , “it was just a drill” (it was NOT), “it was a mistake” , “you are overreacting”. You cannot sit there from the relative safety of your homes, where in the event of an emergency you may often have (though not always, I admit) an option to flee, to drive to another location, another state (even if it’s six hours away) and judge me on how I felt and reacted during this 38 minutes OR for any of the rest of that day, numb and in shock. We thought we were going to die. I’m not being dramatic here. WE THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO DIE. At least for a few moments...if maybe not the whole 38 before word actually got out we were not...there were moments in there when everyone on this island thought they could die. We did not have the option to think this was a drill since we were told it was NOT. A Ballistic Missile strike would take out, nearly, our entire state. There is no driving away from that - we are on an island. You do NOT get to sit and judge any of us for any of the reactions we had. You cannot know what it felt like, and I am glad that you do not...because I would not wish the feelings and thoughts I had during those 38 minutes, and am still having, on my worst enemy.
Ohana means something here - we are a family. United in love and taking care of one another in some very special ways - and that feeling of Ohana was strong in our state yesterday, stronger than ever. I watched neighbors check in on one another. I watched strangers stop and chat and just say “how are you doing?”
But now our community - our Ohana - needs to come together and push for some immediate changes in our emergency readiness. Sadly, we live in a community that has faced this reality before, in WWII, and yet we have no place safe to go, gather, stay if this happens again - or at least not enough safe places. In my neighborhood, for example, there is a community center. That should 100% double as a Fallout Shelter. If it’s not already (and shame on me for not knowing this) it should ABSOLUTELY be retrofitted to be one.
Mistakes like this cannot - EVER - happen again. The reality is too real. The threat is too great. And while this is, truly in my opinion, an unforgivable mistake, it is one that inevitably taught each of us here in Hawai’i some important lessons.
I have not stopped thinking about what it felt like to sit in that closet for 38 minutes with my daughter and wonder if we would ever step foot alive outside of it again. I cannot even truly capture all of what it felt like, mentally and physically, what I was thinking and feeling, in those moments - and in every moment since the threat was lifted.
In many ways, I feel like I am still in that closet...the fear has not totally gone away. Nor do I think it ever will.