A former Hawaii state worker who sent a false missile alert last month said on Friday that he was devastated for causing panic but was "100 percent sure" at the time that the attack was real.
The man in his 50s spoke to reporters on the condition that he not be identified because he fears for his safety after receiving threats.
He says the on-duty call he received on January 13 didn’t sound like a drill.
"I heard: ‘This is not a drill.’ I didn’t hear ‘exercise’ at all. I’m really not to blame in this. It was a system failure," he told NBC Nightly News.
However, state officials say other workers clearly heard the word "exercise" repeated several times.
He said it felt like he had been hit with a "body blow" when he realised it was just a drill and he has had difficulty eating and sleeping since.
"It was incredibly difficult for me, very emotional," he said, adding that his team was immediately flooded with phone calls from frantic citizens
"It’s been utter hell for me and my family," he said.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency fired him.
The man’s superiors 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, the state said.
His supervisors counseled him but kept him for a decade in a position that had to be renewed each year.
The ex-worker disputed that, saying he wasn’t aware of any performance problems.
While working at the state warning site in a former bunker in Honolulu’s Diamond Head crater on January 13, the man said, he took a call that sounded like a real warning from US Pacific Command. He said he didn’t hear that it was a drill.
But the problems at the agency went beyond the one 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 on Tuesday in reports on investigations about 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," retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, who wrote the report on Hawaii’s internal investigation, 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 January 26. The state did not name him.
The agency’s executive officer, Toby Clairmont, said on 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.
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