Ten bells, and not seven trumpets, announced the apocalypse on February 20, 1971. It was 10.33am, and teletypes in every single radio and TV station across the United States rang those bells to announce an incoming message that nobody had received before.
It was a message that announced the end of the world, sent by the North American Aerospace Defense Command — NORAD.
It was the teletype you are seeing above. It told everyone that any broadcast had to be interrupted and emergency protocols had to be activated — a non-descriptive way of saying that, from that moment, the United States of America was at war with the Soviet Union.
It was a neutral way of saying that nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles were, at that time, flying to drop multiple atomic warheads over their targets all over the planet.
The teletype contained the correct password that authenticated the message. It was real. For the thousands of news people who received it, the teletype was sent by NORAD. It wasn't fake. It wasn't a drill. The birds were flying, and the world was ending.
Fortunately, it was a mistake. Various teletypes sent later repeatedly told everyone that it was an error and that the world wasn't going to end after all:
But for the people who received them, it was very real for a few moments. Like Mike Anderson, who scanned all these amazing documents. This is what was in his mind:
Not good, I thought. Definitely not good. I was not only a station part-timer but also in the Army, an NCO in the 2nd armoured Division at Fort Hood. If this was true, if we were really at war, I'd have to hotfoot it to back to 2ADHQ or at the very least desert the military and spend the remaining few moments of the end of the world with my wife and one-month old daughter.
Mike also scanned this United Press International story by a journalist called Andrew McGill. It came later that day, and it explained what happened and the reaction of the newsmen of the time. Here's the transcript of his report: (sic implied throughout):
If the United States were being attacked, the emergency action notification system would tell you about it.
Through that system, civil defence alerts radio and television stations across the country in a matter of seconds.
Those messages are sent by civil defence officials at the North American Air Defense Command Headquarters near Colorado Springs — via the teletype circuits of UPI and the Associated PRess — to thousands of radio stations.
And — like all systems — this one must be checked occasionally so civil defence authorities schedule tests twice a week.
One is scheduled for saturday mornings — ant his morning's turned into a tragic mistake that left ht country breathless. A civil defence teletype operator sent the wrong message — a message saying there was a national emergency… that that — by order of the President-all normal broadcasting should cease immediately.
In most places, it didn't.
And — while that's a good thing in this case — it has led to some cause of alarm over the entire emergency notification system.
The broadcasters should have stopped their normal programming immediately, hundred out of several thousand did.
If it had been an authentic mergence, that would have caused trouble.
But there is an explanation.
Today, there a was chaos in virtually every newsroom across America. No one had ever seen an actual emergency authenticator before. Some stations went off the air immediately — others didn't.
There were several reasons.
In the first place, the message itself was incomplete. It should have been needed with a row of "X" and 10 bells. It wasn't.
In the second place, UPI and the AP were quick to advise broadcaster with bulletins that the report was erroneous.
But most cause for concern comes over the third reason. There was a discrepancy over which authenticator word was the proper one. Authenticator words change daily and broadcasters have lists giving the words. The word transmitted with today's message was "hatefulness". It was the word on most lists. But some broadcasters couldn't find that word on their lists… some couldn't find their lists… some never received any lists… and hundreds never received the transmission.
Also complicating the problem was that the message came at the usual test time… and many broadcasters ignored it, thinking it was the test.
All this caused speculation that the entire notification system should be overhauled.
Among the comments from broadcasters were these:
This confusion "shows the whole darn (system) won't work. They could've been dropping H-Bombs on us."
An El Paso, Texas station service 300-thousand listeners never received any message — either the emergency notification or the cancellation. "What if it had been the real thing?" a newsman there wondered.
Another newsman said: "this outgo to be exposed. The simple fact is, most personnel simply don't know what to do in these cases."
Another broadcaster decided not to go off the air "because we couldn't find 'hatefulness-hatefulness' on our authenticator list."
At one southwest station, a newsman admitted he was doing a radio show… came out… an ripped the message off his teletype machine. He said he didn't even read it until a notice came cancelling the alert.
Elsewhere… these were the reactions:
"I checked the authenticator and it was correct. I knew I was not supposed to question that, so I read the alert."
From Dallas, one newsman reported: "this made us just as angry (as hell). You can't play around with things like this. If we had gone on the air and broadcast the alert as being from the President of the United States, some old people would have checked it in right then."
But the most hysterical person of all may have been the Texas newsman who ripe open the notification envelope, and found it empty.
Some broadcasters said they ought it was a special unplanned civil defence test. In on man's words… "I believe this was a carefully planned test to see just how the broadcast industry would react to the real thing."
Said another: "it's a great way to see who's on the ball."
But — whatever the result — investigations after investigations are scheduled and many observers say it could result in changing the current suytem… staggering test times.. and, possibly, forcing broadcasters to comply more than they did today.
This whole stream of criticism comes because of the mistake of one man — a man named W.S. Eberhardt. It was Everhardt who put the wrong teletype tape in his transmitter and sent it to the nation's thousands of broadcast stations.
One Civil Defense spokesman called it "a simple human error."
But simplicity is hardly the word.
Wherever word of the alert message was broadcast, people panicked. Police and radio stations received thousands of calls from people wondering what the national emergency was.
And it was not until about 45 minutes after the alert started that Civil defence official canceled it.
For newsmen — and the people they give the news to — it was a frightening experience.
It made this day's two authenticator words "hatefulness" and "impish" stand out in the minds of many.
And — in the words of one Virginia broadcaster — "(We's considering billing NORAD for three sets of underwear.) The real bad part was when she opened the envelope and the words matched."
Andrew McGill — United Press International
I wonder what would be the reaction if it all happened for real today. I imagine half the world would be calling it bullshit on Twitter while the other half took Instagrams of the atomic explosions until HTTP 404 popped up everywhere, only to disappear a few seconds later, consumed by the atomic blaze.
Here's a sample of what one of the radio stations broadcasted that day.