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Hawaii 'ballistic missile threat' alert to phones was false alarm, officials say

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, tweeted Saturday morning that 'this is a false alarm. There is no incoming missile to Hawaii.'

Hawaii residents were thrown into a panic Saturday morning after an emergency alert was mistakenly sent, warning them to "seek immediate shelter" from a ballistic missile threat, and it took emergency officials 38 minutes to send a new alert to mobile phones that the threat was a false alarm.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi said at a press conference with the governor Saturday afternoon that a single individual sent out the alert by mistake. The individual went so far as to click through a second message, intended as a safeguard, that asked whether the alert should go out.

But the blame should not fall on that man's shoulders alone, Miyagi said. "I accept responsibility for this," he said. "This is my team. We made a mistake. We are going to process this and study this to make sure this doesn’t happen again."

The lapse led to an uproar over how such an error — with potentially dangerous consequences — could occur during a time of high international tensions with North Korea.

An alert in all caps was first sent to cellphones across the archipelago at 8:07 a.m. local time (1 p.m. ET), saying, "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

Officials quickly confirmed with the military's U.S. Pacific Command that there was no missile threat, and at 8:20 a.m., the state's Emergency Management Agency followed up in a tweet: "NO missile threat to Hawaii." A similar alert was sent to cellphones at 8:45 a.m., 38 minutes after the first mobile alert.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who also tweeted "there is no incoming missile to Hawaii," questioned how the mistake happened and why it took so long before it was corrected, adding that it triggered feelings of terror unnecessarily in a state with more than 1.4 million people.

Gabbard told MSNBC that "what my family went through and what so many families in Hawaii just went through is a true realization that they have 15 minutes to seek some form of shelter or else they're dead — gone."

Hawaii Gov. David Ige said at a press conference on Saturday sought to clarify the various ways of notifying the public of imminent dangers. "We have the sirens, we have cell phones, we have internet and social media mechanisms," Ige said. "We know that we need to be able to broadcast messages across all platforms. There was no automated way to send a false alarm [to wireless devices]. We had to initiate a manual process. That is why it took a while to notify everyone."

Miyagi explained that the alert was sent after a shift change, when a new team came in and did a test of the ballistic missile checklist. The wrong button was pushed during the test, sending out a message for an actual event, rather than the test.

Related: What should you do in case of nuclear attack?

The testing process was suspended and the individual responsible for the incident, as well as his coworkers, would undergo retraining but would not be fired, Miyagi said.

Beyond the retraining, the state of Hawaii plans to undertake new procedures before sending out a similar alert in the future. New protocol would include adding a second person to the process, officials said.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would open its own investigation into what went wrong.

Earlier in the day, a White House official said President Donald Trump was briefed on the incident, and that it was "purely a state exercise" by Hawaii.

The city and county of Honolulu and U.S. Pacific Command put out statements calling the warning an "error."

"USPACOM has detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. Earlier message was sent in error. State of Hawaii will send out a correction message as soon as possible," said Cdr. Dave Benham, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, blasted the mistake as "totally inexcusable" and told MSNBC what happened was "an abomination."

"We're looking for some quick and aggressive accountability … we need an emergency notification system we can rely on 100 percent of the time," Schatz said.

The incident sent government officials scrambling Saturday to get to the bottom of the failure.

Related: Air Force has trained 247 women for nuclear launch

Ige tweeted that he was meeting with the state's Department of Defense and the Emergency Management Agency to look at ways "to prevent it from happening again."

Relieved residents, meanwhile, described their earlier anxiety and the frantic race to figure out what to do.

Sandra Stephenson, an Oahu resident, told MSNBC that she received the alert on her phone and immediately began calling neighbors to verify if it was real.

Related: How those in Hawaii reacted to missile threat

Stephenson said a neighbor, who is a fireman, told her the message was not a false alarm and advised her to go inside and close the windows. It was only later, when she contacted her daughter on the mainland, that Stephenson said she learned the truth.

She wasn't sure what she would have done if the alert had been real.

"There is no recourse," she said, adding that her house is near the water and it's surrounded by windows. "To me, there is no recourse."

Local television featured an emergency alert message interrupting programming, telling viewers the warning was in effect at 8:07 a.m. until 6:07 p.m.

The unintended alert comes after Hawaii officials in November said they were reinstating air raid warning sirens because of rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

North Korea has conducted several ballistic missile tests in recent months and five nuclear tests since 2006 — a defiant stance that has led Trump to ratchet up his rhetoric.

The regime of Kim Jong Un fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile during a test last July, and in August announced it was "seriously reviewing" a plan to strike near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with missiles.

Kim warned last week that "a nuclear button is always on my desk" and the "entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons," which stoked a response from Trump.