Shortly after the false missile alert the morning of Jan. 13, 2018, a woman rushed up to Col. Jeff Wong.
“Are we going to die?” she asked.
Wong, who was at the Courtyard by Marriott at Coconut Beach for an annual meeting of Civil Air Patrol Pacific Region leaders, tried to calm the hysterical New Yorker standing in front of him.
“Ma’am, we’re going to get through this together,” he said.
Another frightened man hurried up to Col. Tim Hahn and grabbed his arm.
“We have to get to the basement,” he said frantically.
Hahn, who was at the same meeting as Wong, looked the man in the eyes and spoke firmly.
“Sir, there is no basement. Calm down, we’re all going to be OK.”
And they were.
Thanks to the efforts of Hahn and Wong, despite a 38-minute void of uncertainty, the situation was kept under control. About 100 people followed their instructions, there was no sense of panic, no rushing about, no one was hurt.
“Without Colonel Hahn and Colonel Wong, it could have been a much different situation,” said Col. Jon Stokes, CAP Pacific Region Commander.
He noted that at the moment of the false missile alert, people were faced with their own mortality.
“We didn’t know at that time, for 35 to 40 minutes, that this wasn’t real,” he said.
For their actions on that day that sent much of the state into a sense of chaos after receiving an alert on their cellphones warning of inbound nuclear missiles — sent by an employee with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency who believed a training scenario was real — Wong and Hahn were honored with the Civil Air Patrol’s Exceptional Service Medal.
In a short ceremony in front of about 25 people, Stokes praised Hahn, the incident commander, and Wong for taking charge of the situation, quickly finding suitable shelter and making sound decisions.
“We have some people in this room who went above and beyond,” he said.
He noted there were civilians in the restaurant, in the hotel, and at the beach, as well as the CAP members there for the annual meeting.
“We took responsibility for all of that, brought them together, kept them calm,” Stokes said.
Hahn and Wong led people to a secure room near The Voyager restaurant — the one they were meeting in had too many windows — and huddled down. Then, they tried to find out what was going on.
Some people were frightened and confused, others seemed fine. Others were trying to call relatives. A few clung to each other and waited quietly.
“Emotions were across the spectrum,” Wong said.
They were able to learn, sooner than most, it was a false alarm.
Hahn recalled telling people to get off their phones — they didn’t — and checking in at CNN. The lead story at that time was something about politicians. He held it up to Wong and said the missile warning had to be a false alarm.
“That’s not going to be the top story on CNN if there’s an inbound nuke,” he said.
Wong, an operations manager with HEMA, was able to confirm the alert was sent by mistake.
“At that point, we started letting people know it was going to end, likely in a few minutes,” Hahn said.
Hahn said he remembered the meeting had just started when an entire room of cellphones started “blasting an alert. It gets your attention.”
“I remember looking down, going, ‘Nobody in the history of mankind has ever faced this,’” he said.
Their response, simply, was to do their jobs, Hahn said.
“Absolutely,” added Wong, “kicked into a mode where we knew there was a situation we had never faced before.”
As the minutes passed, many civilians were turning to them for guidance, instruction and assurance. Later, many thanked them for their actions and leadership.
“It’s humbling to be honored for something that comes naturally to us,” Wong said. “What we bring to Civil Air Patrol, what we bring to the public, is service and dedication to duty.”
Hahn, who lives in Nevada and is retired from a 17-year law enforcement career, said the funniest thing that happened the rest of the day was when a woman walked up to CAP and said, “How did you people get there so fast?”
“Luck of the draw, ma’am,” he joked
Wong later caught some unwanted attention when an older picture of him at work with HEMA, near computer screens, was published in the media. Many people mistakenly thought he was the “button pusher” who sent the missile alert.
“He received death threats for a while and was harassed,” Hahn said. “The incident for us lasted for weeks after it was over.
“That’s just how it goes,” Wong added, laughing.
“Welcome to our world,” Hahn said.