A Winnipeg couple had just sat down to breakfast at the start of their first full day of a dream vacation in Hawaii Saturday when a push alert warning of an imminent ballistic missile attack flashed across the screens on their phones.

Diane and Charlie Payette — who had just arrived in Lahaina, Maui the night before for a two-week family trip with his brother and his brother's wife — didn't know what to make of it.

"My sister in-law came running back in saying there's a missile on the way, and we were like 'no way'," Diane, 58, told CBC News. "Then they showed us the phone alert and then we were like 'oh crap'.

"We talked about this before we left, and when I left work I said 'well I'll see you in two weeks if we don't get attacked, and then we get this text — it was like 'oh my God this is real, what do we do?'"

Timeline of Hawaii's false ballistic missile alert1:58

Staff at the hotel quickly rounded everyone up and told them to stay in the building's lobby, but after that Diane says it didn't seem like anyone knew what to do next.

'It was pretty unorganized and nobody knew what was going on so we just waited it out.' - Diane Payette

So they stood in the lobby and waited for what appeared like it might be the end of the world.

"Nobody really had any information for us," she said. "It was pretty unorganized and nobody knew what was going on so we just waited it out."

The alert — which officials would later admit was a false alarm sent when someone hit the wrong button — was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m. Hawaii time.


Hawaii missile alert

The alert was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m. Hawaii time. (Tulsi Gabbard/Twitter)

The alert sent the islands into a panic, with people abandoning cars on highways and preparing to flee their homes until officials said the alert was a mistake.

'If we don't make it, I love you'

But it took the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency 38 minutes to send a revised alert informing of the error, and of course the Payettes had no way of knowing it was a false alarm while they waited in the lobby.

"There were some people who were panicking," said Diane. "I actually heard one woman on the phone with her family saying 'If we don't make it, I love you' and I looked at her and was like 'what?' Is this really real?"

The Payette's decided not to call their son and daughter back home in Winnipeg until they had a better idea of what was actually happening.

It's a decision their daughter Lindsay Ridgley is glad they made. 

Ridgley, 32, was at work when news of the alert hit social media, and it wasn't until she got home around 3 p.m. that she saw the initial tweets about the first push alert.

For a moment she says she was panicked, but her husband was nearby and told her about how the story had progressed through the day.

Lindsay Ridgley

Lindsay Ridgley, seen here with her parents at her wedding, is glad they didn't call her during the 38 minutes it took officials to correct a push alert warning of a missile heading to Hawaii Saturday morning. (Submitted/Lindsay Ridgley)

"After seeing some of the conversations play out on Twitter it makes me very thankful that they didn't call me because I can't imagine going through those texts of 'I love you' and 'take care of yourself'," said Ridgley. "I would have been just that much more horrified."

Once they found out the alert was a false alarm the Payettes did what many in their shoes (or in this case sandals) would do — they went to the beach and enjoyed a well earned drink.

"It was a little bit of excitement to start the trip, but now we can relax and enjoy," said Diane.

In a conciliatory news conference later in the day, Hawaii officials apologized for the mistake and vowed to ensure it will never happen again, but Diane says the damage caused by the erroneous alert will be hard to undo.

"It was dangerous mistake to make," she said. "Because now if another alert comes through, everybody is just going to brush it off."

With files from CBC's Ash Kelly, Anjuli Patil, Ashleigh Mattern, and the Associated Press