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In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Gallagher sat in the cockpit of an F-84 Thunderjet at England's Bentwaters Royal Air Force Base, an atom bomb fixed beneath his plane. On high alert, he waited for a single command to take off. His target was a Finnish airfield, presumably one the Soviets would otherwise use. "I don't think people realize how close we were ((to nuclear war))," he says. From 1958 to 1962, he was squadron commander of Outpost Mission, on call to rescue the President from nuclear attack; three years later he went to Mount Weather.
Though Gallagher has spent his life preparing for nuclear war, he has few illusions about what it would mean. "Through the years, we always reacted like we could handle an all-out nuclear attack," he says. "I don't think people -- even our top people in government -- have any idea of what a thousand multimegaton nuclear weapons on the U.S. would do. We'd be back in the Stone Age. It's unthinkable."
Buried within a mountain of superhard greenstone, the 200,000-sq.-ft. Mount Weather has been a primary relocation site for the Cabinet and cadres of % federal employees -- and was long a primary haven for the President. J. Leo Bourassa, Gallagher's predecessor, recalls the day Eisenhower summoned him to the Oval Office and spoke to him of Mount Weather. "I expect your people to save our government," Eisenhower told him. "You know damn well I'll be there as soon as I can." In May 1960, Eisenhower and his Cabinet convened at Mount Weather as part of a training exercise. Bourassa says it was he who entered the Cabinet Room and handed Eisenhower the Teletype report informing him that the Soviet Union had shot down Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U-2 spy plane. Eisenhower's response: "I'll be a son of a bitch."
Twenty-four hours a day, the site tracked the whereabouts of those who were in line to succeed the President. Had the U.S. come under threat of attack, the Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justices -- and, depending on the threat, the President himself -- were to be airlifted here. On approaching the facility, the helipad tower would answer, "Bluegrass Tower." Before they could be admitted past the facility's 6-ft.-thick steel "blast gate," officials would have to show their special ID cards. If they arrived after a nuclear attack, they would be checked for radiation. Anyone who was radioactive would trigger a series of sensors, setting off a bell and a flashing light -- yellow or red, depending on the level of radioactivity. Those who had been most exposed were to be led to decontamination showers and washed with medicated soap. Their clothes would be incinerated, and they would be issued military coveralls. Electric carts converted to ambulances would shuttle back and forth to the facility's subterranean hospital.