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Athletes on Living Through False Alarm on Hawai'i: 'We Thought This Could be It'

7 Feb, 2018

By: Michael Popke
Hugs, Whispered Prayers as Teammates, Competitors Huddled in Stairwells and Basements

Although the mainstream news cycle has moved on from the emergency alert of an inbound missile mistakenly sentto mobile devices and TV and radio stations in Hawai’i earlier this month, a group of college athletes is still recovering from that terrifying notification. 

After all, they were there. In the path of destruction, so to speak. And in their own words, it was a life-altering experience.

The University of California Santa Barbara men’s basketball team was in Waikiki on Jan. 13 to play the University of Hawai’i. The Florida State University’s women’s tennis team was Hawai’i, too, playing in the three-day Rainbow Wahine Invitational.

The message hit:

 “EMERGENCY ALERT. BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAI’I. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

And, say those eyewitnesses, things got surreal.

“We were either huddled in the bathroom, in the stairwells or out in the halls,” UCSB associate athletic director Bill Mahoney told Yahoo Sports. “The warning said to stay away from the windows. It was bizarre.”

The women had not hit the tennis courts yet. Head coach Jennifer Hyde notified her team to meet in the lobby of the Waikiki Beach Marriott.

“Players hustled down the stairs since the elevators were shut down,” according to a report in the Tallahassee Democrat. “The lobby began to fill with concerned and confused guests. Tranquility was replaced by fear. Hyde said hotel employees were urging guests to return to their rooms. From that point, Hyde had players take refuge in the sixth floor, concrete stairwell of the hotel’s east tower — farthest away from the sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. Hyde’s logic was they were on the opposite end of the coast, and high enough to be safe but ‘not so far we can’t get down’ to the ground floor if necessary.”

“I was trying to get them out of harm’s way, not knowing exactly what that harm might be,” Hyde said.

The University of Washington women’s tennis team also was in Hawai’i for a season-opening match against the University of Hawai’i, and many players reported feeling the need to call loved ones and say their final goodbyes, according to KIRO7.com. “You're literally like, this could be it, you know?” said senior Alexis Prokopeyk. “So yeah. Very scary. Very, very scary.”

Local college athletes also endured quite the scare. When the “incoming missile” announcement was made, the University of Hawai’i women’s swim team was practicing in its home pool. Swimmer Kasey Schmidt wrote a riveting first-person accountof that experience for Swimming World magazine:

I watched the demeanor of our coaching staff shift as I waited on the wall for the sendoff. Even through my blurry goggles, I could see that they were no longer concerned with the times we were holding on 50s fast or what pump-up song to blast through the speakers situated at the edge of the pool. They exuded a more serious aura, and certainly, one more frightening.

Our head coach took a deep breath and calmly instructed the 50 swimmers to exit the pool. Slowly, cautiously, curiously, I lifted myself out of the water and followed the other swimmers across the pool deck towards the diving well. The coach opened a door I had never noticed before and asked us to walk down the stairs into what looked like complete darkness. We shuffled down concrete stairs in single-file and filled a rather moldy room that hadn’t seen a human or a bleaching agent for a couple decades. I learned later that it was called “the dungeon” for obvious reasons.

Once everyone in the Aquatic Center (UH swim team and coaching staff) gathered into the room, we were told exactly what was going on. The head coach lowered his voice and began, “There is a missile headed towards Hawai’i; that’s all the information we have. Please try to remain calm and we will try to keep you updated.” I wouldn’t say that I felt panicked; I’m more optimistic than that, but I would be lying if I claimed that I didn’t assume the worst. The truth is, I had no idea how long we would be in that room, or whether or not we might ever get out.

It’s interesting how something so frightening as facing one’s own mortality can connect a group of individuals on such a deep level. What shocks me the most is the fact that everyone managed to remain (relatively) calm. There were tears, hugs and prayers whispered in the dark but neither swimmer nor coach broke into a panic. In the moment, I couldn’t pinpoint what quality brought about the atmospheric tranquility. but in retrospect, I realize that we were in the best scenario we could possibly be in in the face of an uncontrollable situation.

It was a full 38 minutes until the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency declared the message a false alarm.

Hyde, FSU’s tennis coach, was able to address the issue once all had settled. “I told [players] this was a great opportunity for us to take inventory in our own lives and the fact we are here together, doing what we love,” she said. “As intense as today was … you are allowed to feel any way you want, because that was some real-life stuff.”  

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