What would you do if . . .?
Famous radio broadcast terrified listeners with reports of alien invasion. Photo credit Shutterstock
By Rita Van Fleet
Recently, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency activated the emergency alert system. The message read: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” Residents and tourists in panic sought shelter, frantically prepared for the emergency and phoned and texted their goodbyes to loved ones.
Fortunately, the notice was a false alarm. A brief text notice was sent shortly after the original notice. The follow-up alert, however, was not sent for 38 minutes. It read: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”
Hawaii had initiated tests of the emergency sirens in response to concerns over a possible attack by North Korea. The phone and television alerts, however, had not been tested. Officials stated that the alert was triggered accidently when an employee hit the wrong button during a shift change. After an investigation, the employee who triggered the alert was fired, though he insists that he believed the alert test was real. The governor was aware of the mistake two minutes after the alert notification. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember his Twitter account password to cancel the alert.
A similar incident terrorized radio listeners who heard a broadcast reporting the United States was being invaded by Martians. In 1938 when radio ruled the waves, Orson Welles wrote an updated version of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds for radio broadcast as a drama, accompanied by sound effects of explosions and the dying screams of humans under attack by aliens.
The show began with a voice announcing “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.” Orson Welles read an introduction about the drama and the broadcast began with an announcer reading a weather report followed by Ramon Raquello’s orchestra playing at the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in New York City.
Unfortunately, most Americans were listening to popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy “Charlie McCarthy” on NBC and tuned to CBS after the broadcast was well into the report of the invasion. While the Ramon orchestra was playing “Stardust,” an announcer interrupted with a report of hydrogen-based explosions on the planet Mars, followed by additional reports that cylinders had crashed at Wilmoth Farm near Grover’s Mill in New Jersey. Eventually, bear-sized, worm-like Martians encased in metal cylinders armed with lethal heat rays emerged and attempted to conquer the world.
Terrified listeners believed a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic ensued with residents jamming highways attempting to escape. The police were swamped with calls begging for assistance. When the news reached CBS, Welles went on the air as himself and reminded listeners that the broadcast was fiction. Hear the full riveting broadcast of 55 minutes here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g
Responses to the Hawaiian alert and the fake news of the Martian invasion were remarkably similar. How should they have responded? According to the federal government’s readiness webpage, when an attack is pending the major factors to consider are distance, shielding, and time. When seeking shelter from nuclear attacks, blast shelters protect against the initial blast and radiation shelters protect from fallout after the blast. Identifying adequate shelter and preparing to shelter until the emergency is over require prior preparation. The government provides guidance for this and other emergencies at https://www.ready.gov/nuclear-blast.