Editor’s note: this story pairs with “Experts explain Utah’s emergency alert system after Hawaii’s false alarm”
BYU-Hawaii senior and bio medicine major Kinsey Brown was showing a group of tourists around Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe, Hawaii, where she works as a tour guide early in the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13
She could hear alarms going off on the tourists’ cell phones and looked up to the sky, noticing that it was an unusually sunny day to get a common flash flood warning.
Right as Brown received an alert on her own phone, a woman ran up and grabbed her arm.
“There’s a missile coming to Hawaii!” she said, beginning to cry.
“I didn’t even get a chance to really think, ‘Is this real or not?’” Brown said. “I had other people freaking out and they were looking up to me.”
Brown tried to calm the woman, assuring her that the military would probably be able to shoot the missile out of the sky. It was also more likely that the missile would target Honolulu, the biggest city on the island of Oahu, 40 minutes away from Kualoa Ranch.
Though Brown and her coworkers had never rehearsed what to do in the event of a ballistic missile attack, they took their groups of tourists toward the tour buses and began yelling at people to get in. Kualoa Ranch is home to a World War II-era bunker, a tour stop on the ranch that would serve as a shelter for guests and staff.
“At that point I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening,’” Brown said.
She tried to call her husband and sister, who also live on Oahu and attend BYU-Hawaii, but couldn’t reach them. She couldn’t reach her parents in California, either.
One of Brown’s coworkers wanted Brown to leave with her to get their husbands. Brown refused, knowing they wouldn’t have enough time and encouraging the coworker to calm down and help drive the people on the buses to the bunker.
Brown said the ranch staff also filled mini buses, jeeps and ATVs with tourists and staff.
She tried calling her mom again, but only got her voicemail.
“I texted and I said, ‘There’s a missile. I’m going to die. We are evacuating,’” Brown said.
Irene McElhaney, Brown’s mother, said she received the text, dropped everything and called her daughter.
Brown’s husband started calling her while she was on the phone with her mom and she had to hang up.
“I don’t even remember if I said, ‘I love you’ or not,” Brown said.
The sudden call drop sent McElhaney into a panic as she tried to contact her other daughter on the island.
“At that moment, absolutely everything about it was real,” McElhaney said.
The Kualoa Ranch staff got 600 people into the bunker, which is 150 feet under and 120 feet into the mountain near the ranch, according to Brown. The owner of the ranch also opened up the private ranch gates to let local Hawaiians in so they could take shelter in the bunker as well. Many were already trying to climb the gates.
“If the missile were to hit, we would’ve gotten everybody inside in time,” Brown said.
After the 38-minute wait for the official notification that the missile threat was a false alarm, Brown said the ranch workers and tourists returned to the ranch, cheering and laughing on the way down the road.
McElhaney said after a few minutes she was able to contact her other daughter on the island and learned that the missile hadn’t hit in the 12–15-minute window that was expected.
The rest of the day was an emotional one for McElhaney, but she said she was able to feel some peace about the situation.
“I knew that because of our belief in God, everything was going to be fine,” she said.
Kevin Brown, Kinsey Brown’s husband, is also a BYU-Hawaii senior studying biomedicine. He planned to meet up with a friend at shelter together, but by the time the friend arrived at his apartment, the alarm had been called off.
Kinsey Brown continued working her tours for the rest of the day. Since that day in January, the Kualoa Ranch staff has been lauded for the way it handled the situation.
“We went through the panic of it all, but it was good at the same time to have that because now we are prepared, and we know how to react,” she said. “I don’t know about other people, but I’ve done research, so I know what to do if it that scenario ever happens again. I guess it was a big reality check.”
McElhaney said the situation helped her see her daughter’s true colors.
“I got to see that she wasn’t just thinking about herself.”