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The former Hawaii state worker who sent a false missile alert last month says he’s devastated for his part in sending panic across the islands.
Ever since those fateful mouse clicks, eating has been a struggle and sleep often only comes with the help of pills. He’s sought counseling and his personal relationships are strained. He’s not suicidal, he says, but he’s taking life “day-to-day.”
“Some days are better than others,” the man in his 50s said Friday. He spoke to reporters on the condition that he not be identified because he fears for his safety after receiving threats.
Still, he insists that he was “100 percent sure” at the time that the attack was real, that he followed his training, and that ultimately the state’s emergency management leadership is to blame for what happened.
Civil Beat agreed to the request to withhold his identity because of the man’s safety concerns and the significance of the incident.
He says the on-duty call he received Jan. 13 didn’t sound like a drill. However, state officials say other workers clearly heard the word “exercise” repeated several times.
Throughout Friday’s interview, which took place in his attorney’s downtown Honolulu office, the man repeatedly said he felt “sickened” when he realized it was just a drill. He repeatedly said it felt like a “body blow.”
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency fired him last week.
The man said he worked at the agency for more than 11 years. His superiors, meanwhile, have said they knew for years that he had problems performing his job.
The worker had mistakenly believed drills for tsunami and fire warnings were actual events, and colleagues were not comfortable working with him, state emergency leaders and investigators said.
His supervisors said they counseled him but kept him in a position that had to be renewed each year. The ex-worker disputed that, saying he wasn’t aware of any performance problems.
“I don’t really recall anything like that,” he said of the tsunami and fire drills. “I know certainly nothing related to drills … there’s no documentation about that, nothing I signed off on.”
While working at the state warning site in a former bunker in Honolulu’s Diamond Head crater Jan. 13, the man said, his shift took a call that sounded like a real warning from U.S Pacific Command.
One of his coworkers answered the phone and didn’t immediately put it on speaker, so he did not hear the first part of the message, which repeated “exercise” three times, he said.
A supervisor made the call from outside the hallway and played a recording of someone else into the phone — an unfamiliar voice — the man said.
That’s slightly different from an account given earlier this week by Brig. General Bruce Oliveira, who led an internal investigation. Oliveira said a supervisor recited a message over the phone and ended by repeating the words, “exercise, exercise, exercise.”
Nonetheless, the co-worker said he didn’t hear it was a drill. His co-workers didn’t immediately indicate it was a drill either, he said.
“The energy in the room, my coworkers were excited,” he said. “They went about their tasks like it was real. I was convinced it was real.”
Less than five seconds after he clicked to select the missile alert from a drop-down menu, the phone inside the warning point room, about the size of a small office conference room, started to ring, he said.
The man also contested Oliveira’s findings that he “seemed confused” and didn’t help in the immediate aftermath.
“Everyone was working, contributing, answering the phones and doing what we could to remedy the situation and make it a little better at least,” he said, folding his arms and rubbing his hands together as he recounted the incident.
As the day went on “my coworkers weren’t talking to me about it,” he added. “We were all shocked.”
Problems at the agency went beyond a single employee.
Federal and state reports say the agency had a vague checklist for missile alerts, allowing workers to interpret the steps they should follow differently.
Managers didn’t require a second person to sign off on alerts before they were sent, and the agency lacked any preparation on how to correct a false warning.
Those details emerged Tuesday in Oliveria’s report, as well as a Federal Communications Report on how the agency mistakenly blasted cellphones and broadcast stations with the missile warning.
It took nearly 40 minutes for the agency to figure out a way to retract the false alert on the same platforms it was sent to.
“The protocols were not in place. It was a sense of urgency to put it in place as soon as possible. But those protocols were not developed to the point they should have,” Oliveira said at a news conference.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi resigned as the reports were released. Officials revealed that the employee who sent the alert was fired Jan. 26.
Several hours after the false alert, Miyagi said that the worker felt terrible about what happened.
On Friday, the ex-worker said that Miyagi “didn’t know the story because he didn’t talk to me.”
“That’s a major issue,” the man added. “In the beginning (Miyagi) didn’t get the right information.” Further, he said, no one at the agency talked to him until three days after the incident, when he had to put a statement in writing.
Last week, FCC Homeland Security Bureau Chief Lisa Fowlkes testified before a Senate panel that the worker was not cooperating with their investigation.
On Friday, the ex-worker said he was out sick for two weeks after the false missile alert, and that the FCC “misconstrued” that as him being unwilling to cooperate.
He added that he was “surprised” and “bewildered” to read that co-workers were not comfortable with having him as a supervisor, part of a two-person team, or even as a member of the state warning apparatus in general.
“I’ve always been a team player. My co-workers should have known that,” he said. He said that he would occasionally switch work shifts to help co-workers. “I don’t see why all of a sudden they would say these things.”
HEMA’s executive officer, Toby Clairmont, said Wednesday that he stepped down because it was clear action would be taken against agency leaders after the alert.
Another employee was being suspended without pay, officials said.
HEMA’s State Warning Point had conducted 26 prior internal drills on the ballistic missile alert before the drill went awry Jan. 13. The man said he took part in about five of those drills.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.