HONOLULU — A man and his girlfriend were driving to the beach when they received a warning on their cellphones that said a missile was on its way to Hawaii, and shortly after, the man suffered a heart attack. He is now suing the state, saying the alert triggered the medical emergency.
It was revealed 38 minutes later by government officials that the alert was sent by accident and was a mistake, but on that Saturday morning, 52-year-old James Sean Shields and 59-year-old Brenda Reichel believed it to be true. They decided that there was not much that they could do to protect themselves and that if they were going to die that they want to do so at the beach. (The state has advised people to shelter indoors.)
The couple both called their children to say their final goodbyes. Reichel’s son is a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, and he said the threat was real, further confirming their belief that the missile alert was not a drill.
Shortly after the call, Shields started “to feel a severe and painful burning in his chest area,” and he “first tried cooling down by entering the water.” When that did not help, the couple decided to head to the hospital.
Just minutes after arriving, Shields went into cardiac arrest and had a heart attack. He was saved by medical professionals, who performed CPR and emergency surgery, according to the complaint.
“My life has changed quite a bit over something silly that could have been retracted in a matter of minutes,” Shields said to BuzzFeed News about his heart attack and the false missile alert. “It took a long time — 20, 30 minutes — for my heart attack to even start.”
Cardiologist John MacGregor, a professor of medicine at the San Francisco School of Medicine and a doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, is quoted in the complaint saying that the alert was a substantial factor in causing the heart attack.
“Prior to that time, Mr. Shields had no known cardiac disease,” said MacGregor.
On Wednesday, attorney Samuel King Jr. filed the lawsuit on behalf of the couple against the state of Hawaii and the former administrator of the Emergency Management Agency, Vern Miyagi, who had resigned after the false missile alert. Reichel was included in the lawsuit because she was present and has suffered “emotional upset,” according to the complaint. The complaint is also against unidentified employees responsible for the missile alert, who were never named by the agency. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
“We tried negotiating with the State, but the State’s position is that the State is immune and the employees were not ‘grossly negligent,’” King said to BuzzFeed News. “Even if we get a judgment against individual employees, the State won’t pay, we’ll have to collect the judgment from the individual employees.”
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s Public Information Officer Richard Rapoza said to BuzzFeed News that they “continue to wish the best for Mr. Shields and his family.”
He added, “while we look forward to resolving this case in an appropriate forum, we’re going to reserve any comment until we have thoroughly reviewed the claims.”
The state’s special assistant to the attorney general, Krishna Jayaram, said that “we will review it carefully and will respond in due course,” in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
The false missile alert caused a mass panic in Hawaii on Jan. 13 when it was accidentally sent out to over a million people during an emergency drill by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which had just brought back the Cold War–era drill to address growing tension with North Korea.
At least 5,000 calls were made to 911 during the false missile alert, but as many as half of them did not go through because the lines were so busy, the Star-Advertiser reported in January. Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at the time that no accidents were caused by the panic, except for a guy who crashed a golf cart.
Multiple reports done by officials since the alert was mistakenly sent have said Hawaii was not prepared to start testing the warning system, and the alert was sent as a result of human error. Officials have said they knew within minutes that the alert was false, but could not correct it because they did not have a plan in place to send a retraction.