Reflections | January 24, 2018

Emergency alert!

Take aways from being in Hawaii on Jan. 13

Emergency alert. Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek emergency shelter. This is not a drill.

What do you do when you are a tourist in Hawaii and your phone and everybody’s around you makes a shrill noise and displays that message? My wife, Nancy, and I found ourselves in that breathtaking moment on our last day of an otherwise exhilarating seven days in the Aloha State.

It happened, as the whole world knows, on Saturday, Jan. 13, at 8:07 a.m. Nancy and I had just disembarked from our cruise ship and were awaiting the go ahead to board a bus to, of all places, Pearl Harbor. Our plane flight was not until later so we decided to include the excursion to downtown Honolulu and to Pearl Harbor rather than wait six hours in the airport.

The excursion agent, who had us lined up in the cavernous harbor terminal, had given us the signal to begin making our way to the bus when the alarm sounded. Of course our progress was halted, and the noise of 2,500 ship’s passengers in that big enclosure was instantly still. The agent was as stunned as the rest of us. Soon she received word via her phone that she was to have us all step as close to the wall as we could. There was no weeping or wailing; it was as though we were all stuck numb.

As soon as reality was reborn for me, I said a silent prayer. As I thought about it later, I did not pray for deliverance from the inevitable doom, but rather that if something happened to Nancy and me our children and grandchildren would be all right. I remembered parishioners who lost loved ones in war or other tragedies. Their intense grief was quickly brought to mind. Nancy reported later that she was praying too.

Then I began thinking about words from the Psalmist, who referred to God as “fortress, shield, rock, salvation, comforter, shepherd. . . .” Those images provided a calmness and consolation in the midst of what otherwise might have been a delirious moment, and I gained a new appreciation for the Psalmist’s situation.

We felt sympathy and empathy for a young woman, probably in her early twenties, who did panic near us. She had her family with her, and after ten minutes or so they helped her regain some composure. I could see how the threat of annihilation to someone with so much of her life before her would be much more traumatic than to those of us who have dealt with life’s tragedies, and whose time to the end is not as long as our lives up to that point.

When the all clear was sounded—again via our phones—indicating that the alert was a mistake, there was a communal sigh of relief. But it was with a subdued mood that we left the big building and boarded the tour bus. The bus driver, a native Hawaiian, began a continuous commentary comparing what the missile attack would have been like with the attack of 183 Japanese bombers on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. As we reached downtown Honolulu he ended his remarks with an emphatic, “Thank you, Jesus!”

Downtown Honolulu was a ghost town. The people on our bus and one other tourist bus were the only people evident. The driver commented about the lack of traffic, and that people must still be in their homes or shelters. We weren’t certain we could see Pearl Harbor because it had been closed following the false alert, but it reopened before we reached the site.

The possibility of what could have been did indeed make our Pearl Harbor experience more realistic and sad. The way World War II ended, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, brought to mind the images of children and adults who suffered from the bombing, with flesh hanging from them and radiation burns. Our own flesh tingled with the thought that we were spared perhaps a similar fate, and our remorse was deepened—remorse that war ever entered human thought.

Nancy and I will be forever grateful that the alert was false. I had thought, before we went on our trip, that a missile from North Korea could be fired at Hawaii given the bullying rhetoric between the presidents of the two countries. But I went anyway, confident that it wouldn’t happen yet, at least not until after we returned home!

The experiences of that Saturday have left me with four “take aways,” to which I need to pay attention and which I commend to anyone with whom I can share these learnings:

  1. Never consider that any sort of tragedy will never happen to you. That doesn’t mean we resolve never to go to Hawaii, or try any other venue, event, or experience. Just avoid that false cockiness that you are exempt from harm no matter what may come—otherwise you may be in for a very rude awakening!
  2. Keep your important papers up to date, including wills, notes about where your executor may find papers and keys, etc., in the event something tragic happens to you. The thought occurred to me, while awaiting the missile attack, that my own records were not up to date. I should have done that before I even boarded an airplane!
  3. Whatever faith you have or hold, keep it alive and vibrant. Nancy and I were sustained by our faith during the intense wait for an expected missile. In fact, in retrospect, that was all we had as we stood like statues against the wall. What a contrast between that vulnerable wall and the strong arms of a saving God!
  4. We all need to do more witnessing for peace. I left Hawaii with this conviction. We need to work to change the basic human notion that defense exists only by having a bigger missile than everybody else, and that supremacy can be achieved by being the Big Bully. The United States needs to be great again by being the world’s leader in its respect for all God’s people, and by working at negotiation, sharing, and cooperation.

I’m beginning my witness by sharing this learning from my experience in Hawaii with everybody who will listen.

Fred Swartz is a retired Church of the Brethren pastor who has served on the communications staff of the denomination and as secretary of Annual Conference.