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We Asked People In Hawaii What It Felt Like To Be Warned Of An Inbound Missile. Here's What They Said.

"I felt like a ghost for a second, like everything was happening, and yet we can't control any of it."

Posted on January 15, 2018, at 1:51 a.m. ET

Early on Saturday morning, everyone in the state of Hawaii received a mobile alert announcing — in all caps — that a ballistic missile was headed toward Hawaii.

Michelle Broder Van Dyke

In case there was any doubt, the message also said it was not a drill.

It took 38 minutes before a second alert was sent to people's phones, declaring it a false alarm.

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

On Sunday, BuzzFeed News asked people in Honolulu's iconic shoreline neighborhood Waikiki what it was like to believe — for 38 minutes — that a nuclear attack was imminent.

Here is what they said, lightly edited for clarity.

Danielle Brown, a student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who is originally from Maui

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"I woke up to the alert and the first thing I did was call my mom, because she lives back home on Maui and my whole family was there. I look outside my window and I see people running. I start freaking out and I go and I knock on my roommates' doors. I wake everyone up and we start running to the bomb shelter we thought was on campus.

"We're running. Everyone's running. Everyone's panicking. We get to where we think the bomb shelter is and we're locked out.

"We're all getting into more of a panic and then this boy comes running — with a hundred people behind him — with a key, and he could open one of the classrooms that were partially underground, but it wasn't even to the point where we would be protected. So we have hundreds of people filing into this one classroom and it was like pandemonium — everyone was really worried. You could tell from across the room everyone was really unsure what was going on. It was scary.

"I've never experienced that feeling in my life — like I'll never see my family again and this is the last point in my life I'm ever going to talk to them again. I've never felt that way, so yesterday was the worst.

"I never want to experience that again. I felt like a ghost for a second, like everything was happening, and yet we can't control any of it."

Cindy Kaplan Rooney, Ava Rooney, and Steve Rooney, who were visiting Hawaii from Montclair, New Jersey

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

The Rooneys were at their hotel in Waikiki when the alert went out Saturday morning.

Steve: "All of a sudden there was hysteria."

Cindy: "People started running off the beach. Nobody knew what to do. I asked at the desk. They said they had never got a message like that before. Then I talked to someone else who lives here, who said usually there's a siren that comes on if there's a real message."

Ava: "It was that alert you get on your phone. I didn't know what half of it meant. I didn't know what ballistic meant. I didn't know any of that. And I was upstairs by myself. As soon as I got it, I was in the middle of FaceTiming a friend from home and I was just like 'Oh my god. What does this mean?' I started pacing back and forth in my room. I had just woken up 10 minutes before... My dad comes into the room, and he's trying to get me in some real clothes. And I'm like, 'What does this mean?' And he's like, 'It means we have a few minutes.' I was terrified.

"The only thing going through my head was Donald Trump actually started a nuclear war over Twitter. That was the only thing going through my head — I had to stop myself from crying, because everyone here is going through the same thing. It was crazy. I was looking outside of my window and half of the people outside were normal and the other half of people were running off the beach into the lobbies."

Cindy: "I didn't know how long we were going to have stay up in the room, so I wanted to bring up some food for [Ava], so I went to the hotel restaurant, which was empty, and they said their manager had instructed them not to serve until they knew what was going on. And then I thought, Hmmm, maybe this is real. So I went upstairs."

Ava: "We both [her and Steve] go downstairs in the elevator, and the lobby is packed. I don't see my mom anywhere, so I'm freaking out. I'm trying to call her, but all the circuits are busy. I just called and it kept failing. I was about to run outside to call my mom, even though I wasn't supposed to do that. Meanwhile, she was just trying to get me food. I don't know what she was going to do — come down with an eggs Benedict during the atomic bomb?"

Steve: "We are right here near Pearl Harbor, which is probably one of the most fortified places in the world. It gives you a sense of safety. I have friends in Riyadh where they've had missiles blown over the city twice in the last few months. They don't get much warning, but they manage to shoot them down."

Sam Rodrigues, a surf instructor from Honolulu

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"It was different. I never had one like that. ... I believe most people here at the beach received it on their phone. Women were crying. Some of the women who work on the beach went home to be with their husbands. Some guys just went home. I just stayed on the beach, because I didn't know where to go.

"There's no shelters. They could bomb, say, Diamond Head or the missile could be on the ships or on base. What do we do? We don't know. So nobody has a chance, really. Also, the other thing I think would be that we have interceptors from the United States. ... I was believing the government was intact and they were ready to go.

"There are so many things that would tell you how real it is, because when there's a tidal wave the lifeguards, police, everyone is broadcasting. And this was just over the phone. The police were not yelling or screaming on the megaphones or anything, so you got to think: Is it really that bad?"

Marco Bernardi, a Los Angeles native who lives in Honolulu

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"It was scary. That was probably the most afraid I've been for my life — ever. It was surreal. You grow up not thinking something like this would happen. You feel like it's your parents' era — or your grandparents' era.... You had the Cuban Missile Crisis in the '60s. But that was a long time ago.

"With the recent news of the administration, and obviously the back-and-forth between North Korea and America, you're kinda like, 'OK, think about it,' but you don't really put it in a perspective of it actually happening.

"So to get that alert, it's hard to think of what to do rationally, you know?

Somewhere in the back of my head I remember someone sayin,g 'Just start swimming out — just start going.' And I saw a Coast Guard boat out there. So that was my first reaction — just swim out to the Coast Guard.

"I took off my shirt and I was just in my board shorts and my first reaction was just to go out in the water ... to just be as far away from any target that you could think of. I felt like with a quarter-mile swim out to the Coast Guard, that I had enough time for them to reel me in."

Pascale Primeau and Lucie Baril, who were visiting Honolulu from Montreal

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

Pascale: "We were awake last morning, because I was in the shower and she was watching TV, and we didn't get any alert. Then we came down here to rent some motorcycles and the shop was like, 'We were closed an hour ago, because we ran back to our houses.' And we were like, 'What happened?' So they told us there was an alert, and that it was false. We were like, 'What?!' We didn't hear the alarm either. We didn't hear anything."

Lucie: "My parents texted me like several hours later, 'How did it went? How did you live with it?' And I was like, we didn't even know. We didn't even get notified about it, so it was weird."

Pascale: "Because we're on the plane mode, so we don't have any notifications. So we could've died and we wouldn't have even known. It's weird."

Phillip Beregovy, who was visiting from Hawaii's Big Island for a volleyball tournament

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"I flew in here from Kona the other day for the HBVA [the Hawaii Beach Volleyball Association] that was going on Saturday for the men's open. Me and my partner, we were like, 'If it blasts we're not going to get far enough if we try to go somewhere now, so let's just see and wait — whatever happens is gonna happen.'

"We just sat there another five minutes and we all got the text [saying it was a false alarm] and we were all like 'Yeah! Yeah! This is awesome. Let's keep going with the whole day.'

"I'd seen a lot of people leave the beach, like tons, 'cause it was 8 a.m., so there was a bunch of people. After that text message, I think it was about two minutes and there was just like three people on the beach. Everyone was gone. It was like 'What the heck is going on?' I saw people running away.

"There was a group of people doing yoga here, who clearly did not get the alert. They were just sitting there — stretching. That was hilarious."

Norman Andrews, who was visiting from Nova Scotia, Canada, before traveling to New Zealand and Australia

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"We just stopped over for a couple of days, and because of the overnight flight from Phoenix, we overslept and only learned about the event after the news media reported it was a false alarm. So we're very grateful that we missed it."

Chelsea Kanuhu, who lives and works in Waikiki

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"I'm kinda clueless about how I feel. It was kinda scary and unknown. You see a lot of people just running around. I was on my way to work. All I heard was people yelling out of their apartments to the next building over that they didn't know what to do. They were just yelling, 'What should we do? Is this real or is this fake?'

"Then I come halfway down here, and I'm on the beach by work, and we can't hear the sirens. We usually hear them on Kuhio Avenue. I was kinda scared, because my other half was in the water on a lesson, working. It just scared me because he didn't know what was going on. When he came in, he didn't know, he couldn't hear the sirens. I was just really hurt yesterday.

"It's just crazy that it's just a mistake. I don't know how it could be a mistake to just push a button. They're coming, but then it's not coming, you know?

"My friend called me and she told me that it was a false alarm and she had just gotten a notice, so that's when we opened up for work again. Then we just moved on with our day. It was kinda hard to work, though, thinking about your family, you know?"

Van Nguyen, a California native who attends the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

"I was over by Ala Wai Plaza. When we got the thing, we thought it was just a flash flood [warning], but we looked outside and it was sunny.

"I looked at my phone and I didn't know what was going on. I went and asked him [her partner], 'What do we do? What's happening?' and he said, 'We just need to go find shelter right now.'

"We saw people and their faces were just terrified. We were like, 'What are you guys going to do?' They said, 'We're heading to the mountains. What are you going to do?' And we just said, 'We're going to just find a basement somewhere.' We heard you're supposed to get low, under some concrete, but there was really nowhere to go. So we went down a half-level [at the Ala Wai Plaza] and we just sat there.

"There was no reception. Everyone was trying to call people. My family is all on the mainland, so I couldn't even really get ahold of them. We were just sitting there — scared — and it was a really strange feeling. I've never felt something like that before. The whole day after was just really awful. We were happy to be alive, but at the same time we were like 'What is going on?'"

Rebecca Trejo and Madeline Johnson of California, and Olivia Griffin of Colorado, who are all currently attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / Via BuzzFeed News

Madeline: "I went to the bathroom and someone saw me walk back to my dorm and then they pounded on my door and were like, 'We gotta go, we gotta go. There's an emergency. We're getting bombed.' Then he showed me the text, so I turned around and grabbed my phone. I just ran down the stairs and started calling all of my friends as I was running to get shelter.

"We were just crossing the street without the crosswalk — we just ran across the street. We really thought we were going to get bombed. It's weird, living in the US — we're so protected and sheltered, you don't ever think about getting bombed. It was not something a lot of people experience. I was really shaken up. I called my mom. That was the first thing I did. And I started tearing up. Told her I loved her and everything. She told me to focus and get to shelter.

"As soon as I hung up with her, my mission was to get somewhere safe — I wasn't even scared anymore. It was just like survival of the fittest I guess... I ended up in the Marine Science building. ... But there wasn't enough space for all of us, we found out later."

Rebecca: "Me and my roommates were all freaking out. We changed, because we were in shorts, and we put shoes on and we packed protein bars, water, and put our backpacks on, and we were out the door."

Olivia: "I didn't even get the text. I was just in the dorm room by myself. I didn't know what to do. I just opened the door and me and the other people on my floor were like, 'Let's go to the bathroom.' Then I said, 'This isn't safe. We have to run to the fallout shelter.' So I kind of just sprinted, and I was calling my parents, just saying 'I love you,' and really not knowing what to do."

Rebecca: "My phone wasn't even working. So many people were on their phones at that time that the cell towers were shot. So I had to send texts. I texted my mom, 'Missile inbound to Hawaii. I love you guys.' And she was like, 'Be safe, be smart, be careful.' And I had to send that to my dad and my cousins. ... It took an hour for my phone to actually be able to call out to make phone calls back to the mainland."

Madeline: "I was sitting in the lecture hall with everyone else, just jam packed, and people were checking Twitter and somebody said, 'They're saying it's a false alarm.' And then everyone got different sources, and then they made us stay an extra 10 minutes just to be sure everything was safe and then they let us go."

Olivia: "It was the professors who were finding information and were being like, we need at least three credible sources until we know. Because someone just read on Twitter that it was false, and they just got up and left, but I didn't know — Twitter could just be saying that."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.