We Thought We Were Going To Die, So We Fought Over A Tractor

A state employee accidentally pushed the wrong button during a routine shift change drill on Saturday, broadcasting an incoming missile alert to the people of Hawaii. More than 30 minutes later, officials corrected the statewide alert.

In those minutes in between, many residents believed the state was under attack. And with the ongoing public feud between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, it’s easy to see why people thought the missile alert was real.

HALEIWA ― On Saturday morning, my fiancé and I were faced with a difficult decision: Should we wait out a nuclear attack from the basement apartment of our home, or should we risk it on the road and drive up to a family member’s house?

As a Hawaii reporter who’s covered the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, I knew we only had up to 15 minutes to seek shelter before the missile hit. I knew that buildings with concrete walls were the safest bet. I knew that you were supposed to stay away from windows and not look directly into the light.

I also knew that, while tensions with the hermit kingdom are high thanks to a president eager to insult, experts mostly believe it’s unlikely North Korea would attack the U.S. 

But that didn’t matter now.

Here I was at 8:08 a.m. on a Saturday reading this alert:

Carla Herreria

When I read “THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” I ran.

I was on my way to the beach, but I crashed into our bedroom instead and grabbed Jonathan out of the blankets. I grabbed a sarong (you can’t face a bomb in a bikini), my cellphone, my computer (I knew my editors would want some information soon) and a charger. Jonathan jolted out of bed when I told him there was a missile headed this way. “Not a drill,” I said. “We have to go downstairs.”

I slung a Hydroflask water bottle into my arms, ditched it when it began to spill, and ran downstairs to my neighbor’s apartment. I rushed everyone into her concrete-walled bathroom. I was sitting on the floor smelling the scent of a dirty litter box, and Jonathan was sitting on the tub. My neighbor hadn’t seen the alert, so she didn’t know what was happening. I tried to explain, but I speak fast when I’m nervous. She didn’t understand. I was hugging my laptop, and the charger was tangled in my sarong. Then my oldest sister, who lives in my neighborhood, called. It was 8:09 a.m. 

She, her husband and her 5-month-old were about to leave their house to go to her in-law’s place up the road. She insisted we go there too. It’s high up on a hill, she said. There are fruit trees and chickens on the property. It’ll be safer. We’ll all be together.

I asked Jonathan if we should go. “We need to make a decision fast,” I pleaded. “We have less than 15 minutes to get there.”

On the way to Jonathan’s truck, I saw my friend in a towel standing on her porch. She looked confused, and I begged her to go back inside and head to the downstairs unit of her house ― the one with concrete walls and few windows. I felt guilty driving away in a panic, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had my family to get to. It was safer for her to stay put, anyway.

On the road, cars were pulling over to tell pedestrians to take cover. We warned a pair of tourists to go inside and stay there. We drove fast. Everyone outside looked confused. The police cars, typically topped with blue lights, had red lights turned on. Few people knew what to do.

It was also a very beautiful day, chaos aside. There were almost no clouds over the Pacific Ocean, and the mountains looked as green as ever. You could see all the way to Kaena Point

At 8:17 a.m., halfway to the house, I opened my family’s group chat and wrote, “I love you all, please be safe.” I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I needed my parents, who are in California, and my other sister, who lives on the other side of the island, to know that.

Then I took a breath and squeezed Jonathan’s hand. He looked at me, and I told him I loved him. He loved me too. The world stood still for a moment, and I thought to myself, “We’re doing this together and that makes it OK.”

Carla Herreria

On the last stretch of our drive, we got stuck on a two-way road behind a slow-as-hell tractor going uphill around a blind corner. Jonathan and I argued over whether we should pass it or not. 

“It’s dangerous to pass this guy up here,” he said. “We could get into a head-on collision!”

“But what about the missile?” I argued back. “We could be too late!”

For at least a minute, we had an honest-to-God argument over which way was worse to die. My blood boiled. I couldn’t believe I was defending myself to my partner in the last moments of our lives. For fuck’s sake, we were fighting over a tractor and a two-lane road. But we were petrified, and we were stressed.

After what felt like a million years, the man in the tractor waved us around him. We dropped the argument immediately, and Jonathan drove fast.

Something came over me after that. Maybe it’s because I had to seriously consider whether dying in a crash was better than dying from nuclear fallout. My brain had gone into default mode, and the only way to disable it was to get to that house.

I also knew that we had run out of time.

It was 8:20 a.m., and we were still five minutes away. The 15-minute window isn’t even a hard-and-fast rule. Some experts estimate the missile could get here in 12 minutes. I braced myself for the sounds of sirens or a loud boom. I stared at the road. 

Nothing happened.

Now, from the safety of the future on an island that wasn’t attacked, I realize that leaving our neighbor’s concrete-walled apartment could’ve been the worst decision we made that day. I knew that fact when I agreed to get in the truck, but it somehow felt like the right thing to do. I felt a sense of camaraderie. I needed to be with my family, especially if they were on the road too. I didn’t mind if I died trying to get to them, either. I don’t know if this is dumb or noble. I’m OK if it’s both.

At 8:23 a.m., I got a text message from my other sister on the west side of the island. She knew a police officer who told her a state employee pushed the wrong button sending out the missile warning alert. A minute later, we pulled up to the house on the hill.

I wanted to throw up.

My sister, her family, her husband’s brothers, wives and their children gathered around the dining room table and living room while their parents made us coffee. We ate apple slices while joking about nuclear war. We discussed better emergency meeting areas and agreed on one that was less than a minute from all of our homes. We shared survival tips for the apocalypse. We talked about death and how there’s nothing anyone could do, really.

I had already opened my laptop and was searching for answers. I reached out to state officials, I talked to the police. I told my editors and colleagues what I saw, what I did, how everyone felt. I started writing, as I usually do in times of stress.

At 8:45 a.m. ― 37 minutes after I pulled Jonathan out of bed and ran for my life ― the state issued a correction alert that dinged on everyone’s phones.

I wanted to throw up again.

Carla Herreria

I’m writing about this now because I need a recorded account of the way I felt that morning. I want to remember how I reacted, how I let my emotions tumble and toss, flare up and fight. And I want to learn how I can be better for the next time the world might end.

Putting all pride aside, I have to admit that I was scared shitless. I didn’t quite panic, but my body moved so fast that I tripped and I spilled things. My voice shook and, especially at the onset of the alert, none of my sentences made sense.

In those moments, I thought hard about my family. I really needed them to know that I loved them. When I looked into Jonathan’s eyes, I really saw him. I saw how he looked back at me and how he wanted to save us.

When we were behind the tractor, I really felt like we were about to die and were wasting time slogging behind this rickety thing. I mean, there were no houses or structures on that stretch of the road. I was really mad Jonathan wouldn’t pass him. It all felt so urgent and real.

Following the false alarm, I interviewed other locals who had heroic stories in the 30 minutes we thought we were under attack. I wrote about a woman who was in tears while she consoled her kids in the closet. Her husband, an Army soldier, stood guard in front of the door. I talked to one man who pulled his fiancée into their guest house, told her he loved her and asked her to text her family “goodbye” ― just in case.

I’m mad at myself for not being more heroic. Instead, I fought over a tractor and tried to take back power over how I should die. I feel foolish now, but at least I ended that morning with family and confirmed one thing I always knew to be true: I’d choose family over anything, even if it meant racing into uncertainty.

But if I learned anything that day ― in between the race for survival, the love, the anger, the desperation ― it’s this: Be softer and love harder when the world ends. It’s the only sane thing to do.

This story originally appeared here.

Carla Herreria
Carla Herreria’s family gathered around to watch the news after learning the missile alert was sent by mistake.

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