Civil Defense Doomsday Hideaway

  • It may well be that the cold war is over, that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are dismantling thousands of nuclear weapons, and that Moscow no longer poses the threat to the West it once did. But buried deep inside a Virginia mountain, a vast, top-secret installation -- one of the great artifacts of the cold war -- remains at the ready. Known as Mount Weather, it is a Strangelovian relic of yesteryear intended to shelter the President and other top U.S. officials in case of nuclear war. The 33-year-old facility is manned by a second generation of doomsday planners, men and women who are reassessing their mission and that of the massive bunker they have maintained through more than three decades of nuclear threat.

    . Designed to survive the unthinkable and completed in 1958, the year after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Mount Weather stands as a monument to a potential nightmare. Few in the U.S. government will speak of it, though it is assumed that all along the Soviets have known both its precise location and its mission; defense experts take it as a given that the site is on the Kremlin's targeting maps. Yet Mount Weather remains an integral part of the U.S.'s "Continuity of Government" plan, under which senior officials are to be whisked away in case of an imminent nuclear strike so that they can set up a kind of Administration-in-exile, directing every order of business from retaliation to recovery.

    Mount Weather is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which for years has fended off inquiries about the installation with a firm "no comment." Jokes Bob Blair, a FEMA spokesman: "I'll be glad to tell you all about it, but I'd have to kill you afterward." Officially, the Mount Weather bunker does not exist; it is not mentioned in FEMA's published budget. "Even I don't know much about it, and I'm head of FEMA's congressional affairs," says David Cole. "A lot of it is in the black ((secret)) program."

    In FEMA's internal telephone directory, Mount Weather is referred to simply as SF, for Special Facility, and that is what it is called by all who are assigned there. "I was ((at the agency)) for almost two years before I heard the term Mount Weather," says Julius Becton, who headed FEMA from 1985 to 1989. The installation has no street address, merely a post-office box in Berryville, Va., a sleepy hamlet eight miles away.

    Tucked into a heavily wooded mountain ridge straddling Loudoun and Clarke counties, Mount Weather remains largely invisible. On Loudoun County's tax map, parcels covering some 434 acres are simply designated "United States of America." Area residents nod knowingly at mention of the facility. "For years residents of Loudoun County have quietly smiled to themselves that if all the other roads in the county were choked with snow and ice, that one road would be practically dry," says Rob Montgomery, a county employee. "Care was always taken that people could get in and out of there."

    On the approach to the facility, along a twisting, narrow stretch of County Route 601, past Heart Trouble Lane, a flashing yellow warning light and a 10- m.p.h. speed limit provide the first hint that something unusual is around the bend. The compound is surrounded by a 10-ft.-high chain-link fence topped with six strands of barbed wire. Armed guards patrol the perimeter. Anyone straying past the entrance is temporarily relieved of cameras, asked to stay in the car and then shown the way out. Motorists who take an inordinate interest in the site are shadowed by security cars and watched through binoculars. Warning signs forbid the making of sketches or diagrams of the facility. Strangely enough, the airspace over the site is unrestricted -- probably because the most sensitive portion of the installation is underground. A TWA 727 jetliner crashed into the mountainside in 1974, killing 92 people and drawing unwanted attention to the site.

    Despite the secrecy surrounding Mount Weather, an extensive review of county, state and federal documents, as well as interviews with more than 100 current and former officials, provides a tantalizing glimpse inside the installation. Mount Weather is a virtually self-contained facility. Aboveground, scattered across manicured lawns, are about a dozen buildings bristling with antennas and microwave relay systems. An on-site sewage- treatment plant, with a 90,000-gal.-a-day capacity, and two tanks holding 250,000 gal. of water could last some 200 people more than a month; underground ponds hold additional water supplies. Not far from the installation's entry gate are a control tower and a helicopter landing pad. The mountain's real secrets are not visible at ground level.

    At the turn of the century, the site was a National Weather Bureau facility where balloons and box kites were sent up to observe weather conditions. In 1936 it came under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which began to dig an experimental mine into the mountain 250 ft. to 300 ft. below the surface along an east-west axis. The tunnel, which extended a scant quarter-mile and measured 7 ft. wide by 6 1/2 ft. high, provided the opening for what would later be expanded into an underground complex of offices and living quarters.

    The precise genesis of the Mount Weather project remains uncertain, but it undoubtedly came in response to the Soviet Union's 1949 detonation of an atom bomb and the grave concern that event triggered in the U.S. Bellicose Soviet rhetoric, McCarthyite hectoring and, soon after, the Korean War persuaded senior U.S. officials in the early 1950s that provisions would have to be made to protect the country's leaders against a possible nuclear attack. Thus the search began for an impregnable site to which the President and other top officials could be spirited in case of a war emergency.

    For the Eisenhower Administration, Mount Weather was a natural choice. It was 48 air miles from Washington in a rural and largely undeveloped portion of Virginia. The mine already existed at the site, and the Bureau of Mines had been using state-of-the-art drilling and bit technology there for years. The bureau's physicists had conducted extensive tests of high explosives inside the mountain, setting off as many as 64 sticks (34 lbs.) of dynamite at a time. Studies of the resultant impact and shock waves on the rock structure convinced them that the site would make an ideal superbunker. An April 1953 bureau study concluded that "the rock in the area . . . is exceptionally hard and tight." There were few faults or fissures; most of the rock was epidosite and greenstone, a local name for a Precambrian basalt that had metamorphosed into an extremely dense formation.

    In 1954 the Bureau of Mines began a massive expansion of the mine into the most secure shelter and command post scientific and military minds of the time could imagine. One of the architects of the project was Paul Russell, who headed the Bureau of Mines facility and later studied the impact of nuclear explosions on underground structures. Among the few men still alive who assisted Russell and others on the project is Gilbert Fowler, now 80. For three decades, from 1938 to 1969, Fowler worked at Mount Weather, helping both to dig the original mine and to complete its transformation into the secret complex. Crews worked around the clock for three years, blasting and excavating in a damp but constant temperature of 52 degrees F. Fowler was foreman of one of the three 40-man shifts. "That was some rough, tough, dirty work," he recalls. Between 1953 and 1969, Fowler witnessed a marvel of engineering, working first for the Bureau of Mines and later for the Army Corps of Engineers. "It was amazing the way they could drive a straight line through solid rock," he says. Inside the mountain the tunnel was gradually expanded into a self-sustaining underground complex.

    Several underground ponds were carved from solid rock -- some of them, according to Fowler's estimates, were 10 ft. deep and 200 ft. across. One was to be a reservoir for drinking water; others were used to cool the air pumped through the complex's massive mainframe computers to prevent them from overheating. Side tunnels were dug, and more than 20 cavernous offices were put in, some shored up with concrete. To withstand the severe exterior shock of a nuclear blast, the roof areas of the tunnels and rooms were reinforced with 21,000 iron bolts sunk 8 to 10 ft. into the rock, according to records at the National Archives.

    Fowler and other current and former Mount Weather employees describe an eerie complex that could be turned into the U.S.'s underground capital in an instant. Standby sleeping quarters were set up to accommodate hundreds of government officials. Because the country's Emergency Broadcast System could be obliterated in a nuclear strike, a radio-and-television studio was included so that the President or other key officials could address the nation, providing people with emergency instructions and telling them that at least some units of government were intact and carrying on. Diesel engines were installed to generate electricity in an underground utility plant called the power chamber. Refrigerators were brought in for food storage. A cafeteria became part of the complex, as well as a hospital.

    An air shaft was dug from the main tunnel to the top of the mountain, and pumps and fans were installed for air circulation. If need be, the entire underground complex could be sealed. The entrance to the facility, according to Fowler, could be closed off with a so-called guillotine gate; behind it is a solid steel door that Fowler estimates is 5 ft. thick, 10 ft. high and nearly 20 ft. across. It rests on wheels and can be opened and closed electronically. Says former FEMA head Becton: "The entrance is such that if they were to pop a nuke, it would withstand whatever they popped."

    Mount Weather is a city unto itself, with a resident complement of scientists, computer programmers, engineers, fire fighters, craftsmen and security guards. The government bureaucracy is well represented by branch chiefs, financial managers, supply officers, secretaries and stenographers. Mount Weather's communications facilities are an integral part of the National Emergency Management System, with a direct link to the White House Situation Room.

    The job titles of some of the on-site staff reflect the unique nature of the facility: crypto-equipment operator, disaster-preparation specialist and attack-warning adviser. Mount Weather also has a simulation and gaming branch, which postulates various disaster scenarios. In all, more than 240 men and women work at the site; some are second-generation employees, and most are unwilling to utter even a word about the facility, having been sworn to secrecy. Beyond preparing to cope with the effects of a nuclear attack, the facility conducts substantial research into radiological instrumentation and is a focal point for disaster information. Eight engineers, technicians and scientists assigned to Mount Weather's radiological instrumentation test facility work on a variety of projects, including the development of radiation-measuring instruments used for both civil defense purposes and peacetime emergencies. The complex is also home to the National Emergency Coordination Center, which operates 24 hours a day, monitoring disasters worldwide, be they earthquakes, tidal waves, nuclear accidents -- or the ultimate catastrophe: the outbreak of nuclear war.

    The man who has run Mount Weather since 1968 is Bernard ("Bud") Gallagher. A former Air Force bomber pilot who was shot down over Denmark and held captive by Germany's dreaded Gestapo during World War II, Gallagher flew through the mushroom clouds of 12 nuclear tests in 1952 and 1953 to record radiation levels. He later went to the White House, serving in the Office of Emergency Preparedness. Now 69, Gallagher is described as a superpatriot and a student of such dire scenarios as the postattack consequences of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. Says Becton: "He's a solid citizen, a guy who has dedicated his entire life to this, and I suspect he won't leave until he has to be carried out in a box." Gallagher declined to be interviewed.

    Even though cold war tensions have eased, Washington planners insist that, along with airborne command centers and underground military installations, Mount Weather remains an essential element in national defense. A former National Security Council staff member says the consensus among people who think about the unthinkable is that Washington is a potential target for nuclear attack -- even outside a cold war framework -- because any foe would be tempted "to decapitate" the U.S. government by killing its leaders. In recent years FEMA has shifted the focus from a potential Soviet attack to one by a Third World nation or even a terrorist group with access to a crude nuclear device. Other scenarios that might trigger an evacuation to Mount Weather, according to a former FEMA official, would be the poisoning of Washington's water supply or a biological or chemical attack on the U.S.

    Each successive Administration has rehearsed the evacuation drill, briefing those on the list of designated officials -- Cabinet Secretaries and heads or seconds-in-command of key government departments and agencies -- about where they should assemble to be taken out of harm's way. Most among the leadership carry special identification cards designating them as evacuees, and have already been briefed as to where they would go if there were an emergency, according to Becton. "The emergency instructions tell them what to do and where to do it."

    William Brock, for example, who was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Labor from 1985 to 1987, ranked 11th in the order of presidential succession and was on the evacuation list. Brock said he never went anywhere without his special card. During one exercise, he recalls, he went to the Mall in the center of Washington and was helicoptered to Mount Weather. Brock said he took "absolutely nothing" with him.

    FEMA spokesman Marvin Davis, who says the facility is still needed, concedes that political change in the world may ultimately redefine the role of Mount Weather. "But public policy rarely closely follows current events," he says. "It's too soon. We're less than a few months into the new world. It's going to take some time before that's fully assessed." Says Becton: "We are no longer faced with a bolt out of the blue from Russia, but no one has the assurance that someone else won't pop up in the next five or 10 years and take on that threatening role."

    Much has changed since the planners of 1953 mapped out their scenarios. The nuclear weapons of the 1990s are far more accurate and more penetrating, and while satellite surveillance has been enhanced, warning times in case of attack have been reduced. The helicopter flight time from the White House to Mount Weather is about 20 minutes, but a missile fired at the U.S. by a submarine lying just off the coast could strike within 10 to 15 minutes after launch. And there are some nuclear-weapons experts who say, all planning and testing notwithstanding, a direct nuclear hit on Mount Weather would destroy it.

    Mount Weather's greatest vulnerability, however, may lie not with nuclear weapons but with human nature. The government officials designated to be evacuated in case of an emergency are not permitted to take their families with them, and many former officials say they would find it unimaginable to abandon husbands, wives or children. The issue has dogged the doomsday planners from the beginning. "I never took it very seriously," says Alexis Johnson, who was Deputy Under Secretary of State during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. "It was an unrealistic thing, it seemed to me, that we'd all pick up at the ringing of a bell and run for the hills, leaving our families behind."

    That raises another troubling question about Mount Weather's mission. Over the past 33 years, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on maintaining and upgrading the complex to protect several hundred designated officials in the event of nuclear attack. During the same period, the U.S. government has dramatically reduced its emphasis on war preparedness for ordinary citizens and currently spends less than 50 cents a head each year on civil defense. In a 1989 brochure titled Are You Prepared? FEMA offered the suggestion that citizens could use "furniture, books and other items commonly found around the house" to build makeshift fallout shelters. But who would be left to be governed after the fires had died down and the chosen few emerged from the mountain?