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AEDC team members reflect on their experiences during Hawaii false missile alert

AEDC team members David and Keely Beale and their family were in Hawaii during the Jan. 13 false missile alert. Here, they pose for a picture in front of the Kilauea Volcano Caldera. Pictured from left is their son, Noah Beale; Zach Jones, their daughter’s boyfriend; their daughter, Lauren Beale; Keely; and David. (Courtesy photo)

AEDC team members David and Keely Beale and their family were in Hawaii during the Jan. 13 false missile alert. Here, they pose for a picture in front of the Kilauea Volcano Caldera. Pictured from left is their son, Noah Beale; Zach Jones, their daughter’s boyfriend; their daughter, Lauren Beale; Keely; and David. (Courtesy photo)

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, TENN. -- The trip that AEDC team members David and Keely Beale had waited more than 30 years to take was winding down.

It was the fulfillment of a promise. Early in their marriage, Keely made David promise that the two would vacation in Hawaii for their 25th wedding anniversary.

“After 32 years, we hadn’t gone yet due to life events,” David said. “So when the ultimatums started I finally said, ‘OK, book it, Danno!’”

The Beales made it to the Aloha State earlier this year.

The cruise ship the couple had boarded seven days earlier docked at a Honolulu port on the morning of Jan. 13. After disembarking, the longtime AEDC employees were planning to rent a car and take in a little more of the Hawaiian city before catching an evening flight back home.

After leaving their stateroom that morning, the Beales met with their son and daughter, who accompanied them on the cruise, in the ship’s hallway. It was there that their 21-year-old son, Noah, shared an alert he had just received on his smart phone.

“We were literally in line to get off the boat when the message came in,” David said.

The ominous, all-caps alert read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The Beales and their children, like hundreds of thousands of fellow tourists and Hawaiian residents, endured nearly 40 taut minutes of uncertainty during what turned out to be a false ballistic missile threat issued on Jan. 13 across the Hawaiian Islands.

Although the Beales reflect fondly upon a trip that included daily excursions, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, tours and whale watching, Keely described the 38 minutes between the time the threat alert was sent and the receipt of a second alert advising the threat was a false alarm as “tense.”

“My initial gut reaction was disbelief,” Keely said. “I didn’t think it was true even though the alert did say it wasn’t an exercise or a drill…I just really didn’t think it was real.”

But with recent reports of North Korean missile launches and tensions between that nation and the U.S., there was cause to believe the threat was real.

The Beales had previously visited the nearby Pearl Harbor. Keely said she reflected upon Pearl Harbor’s history and decided she did not want to be on a ship in the event of an attack.

“I think we did discuss it for a minute and just decided to go ahead and continue getting off the ship,” Keely said.

After exiting the boat, the Beales joined others inside the port terminal building at the ship port. Keely and the children gathered around a structural post to provide some level of protection in the event of a building collapse.

Keely said this move fell in line with the safety training she and David have received over the years at Arnold Air Force Base. Keely, a senior engineer in the Aerothermal Measurements Lab, began her AEDC career in 1979. David, an AEDC Fellow and a member of the Facilities and Test Technology team at Arnold, started at AEDC in 1977.

“After I thought about it, I realized that all of the training that we go through here really did help us during that situation,” Keely said.

Both David and Keely could tell their children were rattled by the experience, but Keely credited her and David’s experience at Arnold with helping them maintain a level head.

“Our daughter, Lauren, got upset because she didn’t think that we were treating this as importantly as she thought we should have, but I think our background made us more calm,” Keely said. “Plus, I think we were in more parent mode where, even though our kids are adults, you still kind of shelter them. So you react and hold your emotions inside until the crisis passes.”

As Keely stayed with the family, David went around the terminal in an effort to find additional information with respect to shelters.

In the aftermath of the false alert incident, there were reports of panic in the streets across Hawaii, with many clamoring to find shelter and even some placing children in storm drains to try to protect them from what was thought to be the inevitable.

But David said he did not witness hysteria once the first alert went out. He said he instead observed around the port terminal confusion measured by a sense of calm despite the lack of direction.

“I can only attribute that to disbelief,” he said. “One of the things I found commendable was that crew members stayed at their stations and did their best under difficult circumstances. I talked to one port employee, a local resident, who communicated with her family members as they were heading to a shelter. Yet, she remained at her post, with no information. She just didn’t know what to do and, of course, couldn’t send us to shelters.”

David also kept an eye on his watch. He figured that if a ballistic missile had indeed been launched, it would likely strike Hawaii within 30 minutes. As the time passed, the legitimacy of the threat diminished in David’s mind.

“I can remember saying, ‘It’s been too long. This is not real,’” David said. “It took around 40 minutes to get the official all clear, but we had already decided before then that this wasn’t really happening, just based on time.”

After about 30 minutes had passed, passengers resumed disembarking the ship, and the Beales decided to exit the terminal and find a taxi. During that process, the second alert was sent to serve as notice that the earlier threat alert was sent erroneously. Roads, which had been closed, were reopened and taxi service resumed.

Although both David and Keely said they suspected the threat alert to be an error, they said the second notice did provide comfort.

“It did, I think, relieve everybody at that point,” Keely said.

David said after the second alert was received things quickly returned to normal, almost as if the false alarm had never happened. The family picked up the rental car and resumed their plans for the day. These included a short hike and one more visit to Pearl Harbor before preparing to head back home.

The alerts made the Beales’ vacation all the more unforgettable.

“Our friends now are saying, ‘Wow, you’ll never forget this vacation will you?’ We’re like, ‘No, that’s for sure,’” Keely said.

But when the Beales reflect on their trip to Hawaii, they choose not to dwell too much on the false threat. Instead, they’ll remember their adventures during what Keely described as a “fantastic vacation” and a promise fulfilled.