"I'm crying my eyes out": How one family reacted to Hawaii's false missile alert

HONOLULU -- Officials in Hawaii are trying to figure out how to prevent another accidental emergency alert after residents and tourists were erroneously warned of an impending missile attack over the weekend. The false alarm has become a wake-up call for those responsible for security in the state.

On Monday, the agency that made the mistake Saturday says it's receiving death threats over the chaos and confusion that sent people panicking. One little girl was lowered into a manhole. At least 5,500 people called Honolulu's 911.

Vern Miyagi, Hawaii's Emergency Management Administrator, told CBS News it was a mistake.

"It was a mistake on our part, and I regret the stress and concern and worry," he said.

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Hawaii Emergency Management Administrator Vern Miyagi.

CBS News

Miyagi says an employee clicked the wrong button -- twice. He was supposed to select the option that would initiate a drill. Instead, he chose the real thing.

At 8:07 a.m. local time, an alert of a "ballistic missile threat" was issued by the state Emergency Management Agency containing an ominous warning: "THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

For what felt like an eternity, islanders heard an audible warning: "A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. This is not a drill."

Within three minutes the person who made the mistake realized the error, but it took 38 minutes to send out a correction, which came at 8:45 a.m. local time.

Hawaii officials face widespread criticism over that false alarm. The head of the Federal Communications Commission, which is investigating, called the error "absolutely unacceptable."

CBS News went to see where the mistake happened -- the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which is tucked inside a bunker in Honolulu.

It's a pretty small room with a couple of other employees. Miyagi explained that the employees monitor threats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"I know the individual. This was an accident," Miyagi told CBS News. "Not intentional at all."

Miyagi said the incident is being handled by an investigator. The employee has since been reassigned.

Amanda Thompson screamed when she read the alert. She and her husband threw water and supplies into a tiny closet under the stairs and huddled with their infant and 2-year-old, believing they were about to die.

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Amanda Thompson

CBS News

"We grabbed everything we possibly could -- blankets, pillows, diapers, wipes, food, water bottles -- as I'm crying my eyes out," Thompson said. "We called his parents, and I'm crying so hard that they can't understand me."

Just this past October, a test of the islands' warning systems warned people during a drill that they had 13 minutes to shelter in place in the event of a missile attack like one from North Korea, which is about 4,500 miles away.

Since Dec. 1, state officials have resumed drills of the warning signal used to notify the public of an inbound missile.

To make sure this accident doesn't happen again, the governor says he wants two people to be involved in every drill. There's now a button on the computer screen that allows for a correction to go out immediately in the event of another mistake.