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Four alarming minutes

“Urgent. All stations. This is an attack warning. . . Take appropriate action.”

At 11:14 a.m. last Wednesday, the Pennsylvania emergency management agency in Harrisburg relayed that message to 44 county civil defense agencies. A conscientious civil defense worker in Lehigh County set off the nuclear-attack sirens and was about to contact the Emergency Broadcast System, which warns localities of a nuclear attack, when at 11:18 a.m. he received another message: “Disregard.”

The warning was accidentally sent out by two Harrisburg AT&T technicians who were installing new emergency teletype equipment. Most county officials chose not to broadcast the message before they could confirm it. Even in alerted Allentown, Lehigh County’s largest city, most residents took the sirens, some dating back to World War II, for fire alarms. Said one practical-minded Pennsylvanian: “An alarm system really wouldn’t matter if there was a nuclear war anyway.”

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