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Two Harbors photographer recounts Hawaii missile threat

Two Harbors photographer Christian Dalbec, pictured in 2015 with a drone, was in Hawaii on Saturday, Jan. 13, when a missile threat notification was accidentally sent to cellphone users. Photo by Jan Swart

Two Harbors photographer Christian Dalbec had just finished eating breakfast in Hawaii on Saturday, Jan. 13, when a notification popped up on his phone: "Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

That's when his friend and fellow surf photographer Sean Davey shook Dalbec's hand and said goodbye.

"Well, it's great to know you. Hopefully, I get to see you again," Davey said to Dalbec.

But there was no missile headed toward Hawaii. The notification, accidentally issued by an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was sent via cellphone to Hawaii residents and tourists at 8:07 a.m., generating a state of panic statewide as many sought shelter and said their goodbyes to loved ones. It took 38 minutes until a second notification was sent explaining the first was a mistake.

"For an hour, you thought you were dying. That was pretty crazy," Dalbec said.

After receiving the first notification, Dalbec retreated to his room and called his girlfriend. He managed to send several text messages to friends and family.

"I felt trapped," Dalbec said. "All right, now I can't give anyone a hug or anything."

Dalbec is in Hawaii for several weeks shooting photos of waves, surfers and landscapes.

He's staying in Kaaawa, Hawaii, on the north side of the Oahu island — the opposite side as Honolulu. During those 40 minutes, he kept looking south toward the more populated areas and wondering if he'd see an explosion.

"I was just thinking that was it," Dalbec said.

Around him though, he didn't notice people behaving particularly different. A construction worker read the notification, then put his phone back in his pocket and ordered breakfast.

"I had a gut feeling it just didn't feel right," Dalbec said.

Before the second notification was sent, Dalbec's girlfriend was able to determine through several news reports that there was no threat, and she contacted Dalbec.

When reached by phone Monday, Jan. 15, two days after the incident, Dalbec said everyone on the island seemed to be returning to normal, but it will have a lasting impact on him.

"As the days go on here, it feels a little different each day ... it impacts more," he said. "It kind of gave me a little bit more of an open view on life. It felt like a near-death experience, even though it was nothing."