Retired teacher thought 'I was about to die' after missile alert in Hawaii

Denise Crosby
Aurora Beacon-News

Don't you wonder — especially when you hear about a plane crash or engine problems at 40,000 feet in the air — how you would react in the face of imminent death?

Would you be cool and calm as the horror becomes more real? Would you pray first? Text loved ones? Would you freeze in terror, unable to do either? Or would you slip immediately into panic mode, screaming, crying and flailing about?

Two local women got a chance to answer some of those questions on Saturday morning while seated on a tour bus en route to a tour of Pearl Harbor's historic sites in Hawaii. That's when an emergency missile alert was sent out that indicated a nuclear war could be at hand.

We all know, of course, this story has a happy ending … except perhaps to the unfortunate sender of that false alarm who was never named but reportedly reassigned to a different job.

Still, hearing first hand from someone who didn't know the alert was a mistake for 38 minutes can only make you think.

Chris Foley, who lives in Wheatland Township, and Leslie Alvino from Naperville had just gotten off the ship at the end of a week-long cruise, and were headed to one final stop at the Pearl Harbor Memorial before catching their plane home, when suddenly, the speaker on the bus began to squawk with an unusual noise. The next thing they knew, texts began coming in on their cell phones, with a warning now all too familiar: Emergency Alert: Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This is not a drill.

Foley says at first she thought it was from a prankster who knew how nervous she'd been about making this trip to Hawaii in the wake of rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea under President Trump's volatile administration.

When it became apparent other passengers were receiving texts — and a voice over the bus radio began barking out emergency response directives — she was surprised at how "calm" she became, even while coming to the conclusion "I was about to die."

"At first you are scared," she told me, "but when you realize there is nothing you can do, you resign yourself to the fact … and there is a calm that comes over you because it is not in your hands."

During those critical moments, Foley said she began to recite the Lord's Prayer and to compose a goodbye text to her husband and son.

Her friend Alvino, a dental hygienist with the DuPage County Health Department, however, had a different reaction. Although "it was scary," she never once thought this was the end of the line for her. And unlike her friend, she did not utter a prayer, nor did she send a farewell text to anyone back home.

"Maybe I should have been worried," especially in light of the aggressive rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea leaders, Alvino added. "But I just told myself, this can't be ..."

As people on the bus began to get more vocal, the driver pulled over in a hospital parking lot. And as he opened the door, about eight passengers quickly exited before he was given orders to keep people on the bus and wait for directions from dispatch.

"I was confused because I thought I was going to get off the bus, but then he closed the doors," Foley said. "And I was thinking, well, if it's a nuke, does it matter if I die fast or die slow?"

Although tension was high, Foley says she was also surprised at the relative calm of the passengers, many of whom, she assumed, were praying and texting loved ones as well.

But before she hit the send button on her own message to family, Foley decided to shoot a text to her nephew, who is in the Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor and waiting for her to arrive at the aviation museum, where they were to enjoy a nice visit.

When Foley asked him what was going on, she said he quickly assured her this likely was not a real missile attack as air sirens would be going off if danger was about to hit.

And so Foley relayed that good news to those on the bus, which, she said, seemed to put people at ease as they waited another half hour before getting official word the warning had been false.

"You could sense the relief," she said, adding that "I certainly felt much better."

The bus eventually got its passengers to the memorial site, where her nephew was waiting with a big hug and smile.

Foley says she was not going to even take the tour in order to have a longer visit with her nephew. But he talked her into it and she was grateful he did.

"I cried during the whole thing because more than ever I felt what those sailors must have gone through when they were hit with that surprise attack from the enemy," she said. "It really hit me emotionally and I think I finally released what I was holding in earlier."

Foley says it was particularly emotional touring the USS Arizona Memorial and watching Japanese video footage that showed so much of the devastation of the sneak air attack. I kept thinking, "Oh my God, don't let this happen to America again."

Foley admits as nervous as she was about missile threats before this trip to Hawaii, she's even more anxious about the vulnerability of our country, and the world, to a nuclear war.

"I just wish this president would keep his mouth shut," said Foley, who plans to take part in the Women's March on Saturday in downtown Chicago that marks the first anniversary of Trump's inauguration. "These are definitely scary times … let's just pray that things get better."  

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