As It Happens

This man is facing death threats over Hawaii's false missile alert — but he's not the 'button-pusher'

Jeffrey Wong has been harassed and threatened ever since a photo of him appeared alongside news stories about Hawaii's false missile alert.
This photo originally accompanied an Associated Press story in July 2017 about Hawaii preparing for a missile threat from North Korea. Some online news organizations used the photo in their coverage of the Jan. 13 false missile alert, causing Jeffrey Wong to be falsely blamed for the error. (Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/Associated Press)
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Story transcript

When Jeffrey Wong posed for a photograph at his office last year, he had no idea it would later make him a target of harassment.

The Associated Press took the photo of Wong at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's Honolulu office, where he works as an operations officer. The July 2017 photo accompanied a story about Hawaii preparing for a North Korean missile threat.

The image resurfaced online last month after the emergency agency sent out a false ballistic missile alert, and several people mistakenly thought Wong was the "button-pusher" responsible for the panic and chaos.

"There were racially derogatory comments. They were questioning my loyalty to the state of Hawaii and the United States. There were specific threats stating that I should be shot for what I did, or supposedly did," Wong told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"There were comments about deporting [me]. There was also accusations of me being a planted Chinese agent within the agency to stir up trouble. So a lot of misinformation was put out there as a result of the photograph."

Wong wants to set the record straight that he's not the so-called 'button-pusher' and was on a different island when the alert was sent from Honolulu on Jan. 13. (Associated Press)

Wong took screenshots of the threatening messages and filed a police report, he said.

Authorities are conducting a so-called first-degree terroristic threatening and harassment investigation, Honolulu police spokeswoman Michelle Yu told The Associated Press.

Praised for helping people

In fact, not only was Wong not responsible for the panic-inducing gaffe, but he's been credited with helping maintain calm in the aftermath.

When the alert went out on Jan. 13, Wong was an island away from his office at a meeting in a hotel on Kauai.

There, he helped gather hundreds of panicked guests to seek shelter in a restaurant until he confirmed the alert was a mistake.

"I stood up on a stair and announced myself, gave everybody my name, told them I worked for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and that everybody needs to remain calm until we can confirm if this was, in fact, a missile launch," he said.

This alert was sent mistakenly last month, sending Hawaiians into panic. (Tulsi Gabbard/Twitter)

Marc Tiar, who was vacationing in Hawaii with his family at the time, wrote an email to Wong after returning home to Nevada

"We appreciate your actions greatly and are grateful that you happened to be there and showed yourself to be strong, calm and positive," it reads.

"My family and I will never forget that day or the man who made sure we would be as safe as possible."

How did this happen?

Wong doesn't blame the Associated Press for the case of mistaken identity. The news agency did not recirculate the photo after the false missile alert, but people found it online and shared it on social media.

Some news outlets also ran the image in their coverage of the fallout.

The employee who did send the false alert has been fired. That man, who spoke to reporters separately on the condition that his name not be revealed, said he was devastated for causing panic, but believed at it was a real attack at the time.

Honolulu attorney Michael Green, right, sits with his client, the former Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee who sent a false missile alert to residents and visitors in Hawaii, left, during an interview with reporters on Feb. 2. (Associated Press)

Wong, who oversees day-to-day operations at the agency, said he neither hired the other man nor did the man report directly to him.

"Personally, it's very hurtful," Wong said.

"The people making the comments do not know who I am, who I am on a day-to-day basis, what I do for my family, what I do for the organization, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, or what I do for the people of Hawaii, the residents and visitors, alike."

— With files from The Associated Press

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