If disaster is about to strike, it’s wise to have an abundance of caution. Other times, maybe not so much.
Here are four situations that caused massive false alarms, from the somewhat inane to the deeply serious.
1. Suspicious bottles shut down the Lincoln Tunnel
Photo courtesy of Paul Sableman via Flickr.
Just as the 4 p.m. rush hour traffic hit Lincoln Tunnel on Oct. 3, 2008, someone made a “see something, say something” call reporting a suspicious package.
The tunnel, which is the main throughway between New York City and New Jersey, was shut down for more down three hours as police investigated.
What was the package? A “suspicious bottle” found to be harmless. Two days before this incident, tunnel traffic had also been diverted to local roads due to two sealed bottles – glued to a lamp post – “filled with an unidentified liquid that were found not to be hazardous.”
A month previously, three heart-shaped bottles containing an “unknown liquid,” one of which had a grey wire and a message reading “don’t look at me” attached to it, were also found at the New Jersey side of the tunnel.
2. Powder envelopes caused Super Bowl panic
Photo courtesy of the New Jersey National Guard via Flickr.
Only two days before the 2014 Super Bowl, a batch of envelopes filled with an unknown white powder were sent to five hotels near the MetLife stadium, as well as to a company owned by former Mayor Rudy Guiliani.
Hazardous-material trucks were sent to investigate the letters, which also contained letters referencing al-Queda and the Dallas FBI, according to a local news channel. Eight mailroom workers at Guliani’s office were also sent to decontamination.
Tests performed on the substance later, however, revealed that it was nothing but baking soda.
3. A false earthquake warning causes standstill in Japan
Photo courtesy of Yuma Hori via Flickr.
Cell phones across Japan buzzed with warnings on Aug 8, 2013, as a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake was supposedly about to strike, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Subways halted, emergency personnel was readied and the dollar dipped 20 points against the yen. But as the countdown reached zero, nothing happened.
It turned out to be an unfortunate set of circumstances, where an underwater seismograph malfunctioned at the same time as a faint quake hit another area. This caused the computers to falsely determine that a larger quake was incoming.
At least 228 trains were stalled during the incident, delaying approximately 120,000 passengers, according to Japan Times.
4. A training tape almost launched WWIII
Public domain screenshot from the movie Dr. Strangelove courtesy of Wikipedia.
On Nov. 9, 1979, three different control centers for America’s nuclear command showed preliminary warnings that the Soviet Union had launched a massive strike aimed at wiping out command centers, according to PBS.
Intercontinental ballistic missile crews were put on alert, ready to launch hundreds of megatons worth of nuclear missiles in retaliation.
However, thanks to data from early-warning satellites, senior officers were able to assess that no missiles were in fact incoming. The incident was later found to have been caused by a training tape accidentally loaded into the nuclear command’s computers.
This isn’t the only time false alarms have threatened nuclear war either, according to PBS:
1980: a U.S. computer chip bug showed random numbers of incoming missiles, anywhere from 2-200 appeared on screen simultaneously;
1983: sun reflecting off U.S. missile fields caused a Soviet satellite to erroneously report incoming missiles, and
1995: a scientific rocket launched from an island off the coast of Norway appeared to be an incoming U.S. Trident missile.