OK, maybe it turned out to be a false alarm, but the Saturday, Jan. 13 warning that an intercontinental ballistic missile was headed their way shook two Susanville residents visiting Hawaii to their core. And they still feel the fear.
Rick and Anna Stewart, owners of Susanville Supermarket IGA, were on the islands for a few days vacation and to attend a California Grocers Symposium when that unimaginable horror struck a little after 8 a.m.
Rick said they’d been up for a couple of hours in their hotel room when the warning came up on both of their cellphones at nearly the same moment. They both read the warning at the same time.
“I took it literally,” Rick said.
Faced with the possibility of an incoming missile hitting Hawaii in the next few minutes, Rick said he and his wife had no real plan to survive such a thing, and having an advance plan is always helpful in the event of such a catastrophe.
“If we were going to survive, it was just going to be God’s will and luck,” Rick said. “It’s your worst nightmare, and then you’re in the middle of it.”
And now even days later, the fear remains. Rick said it’s like waking up from a nightmare and then reliving it over and over again. And even though he knows it’s just a nightmare, he said he and Anna still feel the dread.
When the warning alert appeared on their cellphones, it hit Rick especially hard because he served six years as a technician on a Polaris missile submarine and was intimately aware of the power and potential devastation a nuclear warhead would bring.
“I am fully trained and aware of how those weapons systems work, what the weapon is designed to do and how it works,” Rick said. “I understand the devastation those weapons can cause.”
Rick said he knew from his training, “the primary purpose of these weapons is not to destroy buildings. It’s not to kill enemy troops. A nuclear weapon is designed to immolate entire populations of civilians. That’s what it’s designed to do. This weapon is designed to burn people to death. And it’s not designed to burn armed forces, but civilian populations.”
He also said part of his military training was on how to survive a missile strike, and assuming you’re not caught in the blast radius, there are steps one can take.
Rick said he knew from his training the missile would have about 20 minutes of powered flight before it began a freefall to its target. So, therefore, by his calculation, they had about 22 to 25 minutes before impact.
The couple left their room and went to the hotel lobby and enquired about a shelter. They were told the hotel was sheltering guests in the ballroom, but when they arrived there with the other guests, Rick said he could see the bay and in the event of a blast, he knew the ballroom would be destroyed by a wall of water, and he told Anna, “We’re not staying here.”
They left the hotel on foot and headed for higher ground until they found a small depression that would offer some cover. Rick said he waited to see the launch of a defensive missile that he knew had only a 40 percent chance of success, but one was never launched.
He said he and Anna joined hands and prayed. He said he kissed her and told her he loved her, and they waited and watched the time.
They had left their cellphones in the hotel room and never got the false alarm message, but finally a passerby advised them it was all a false alarm. Rick said they didn’t jump and holler, but they felt relief and walked back to their hotel.
He said the whole experience was like being on an airplane that’s going to crash, but it hasn’t crashed yet.
“You know what’s coming,” he said, “it just hasn’t happened. It’s probably the scariest thing I’ve ever been through in my life.”