Salting treasures deeply away


Vault: Down a dark shaft sunk into the Kansas prairie, an unusual warehouse safeguards corporate records, classic films and secret government documents.

January 27, 2000|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HUTCHINSON, Kan. -- Calling this contraption an elevator is being charitable.

It's a cramped cage, really, with a flapping plywood back, and it's suspended by what looks like a huge, upside-down coat hanger. It's filthy and dark, completely black, as it descends for a full anxious minute -- lurching and rumbling down, down, down until it creaks to a bumpy stop.

It's not very welcoming. And that's exactly the point.

For the only place this elevator goes is a high-security cavern -- an unusual warehouse crammed full of treasures about 650 feet beneath the Kansas prairie.

Here in a salt mine, a local company, Underground Vaults & Storage, has built a business keeping important stuff safe. Tornadoes can't touch its vault burrowed the equivalent of 60 stories underground. Floods cannot permeate the thick shelf of salt that doubles as the warehouse ceiling. There are no seismic faults nearby that anyone knows of.

And the mine naturally retains a year-round temperature of 68 degrees and humidity of 45 percent considered nearly ideal for preserving paper and film.

So it is that secret government documents, hospital X-rays and generations of records from insurance providers, banks and international corporations end up under a heartland wheat field.

So it is, too, that the original prints and discarded outtakes of Hollywood history -- from Charlie Chaplin to "Gone With the Wind" to "Star Wars" -- have landed in a town where the skyline consists of a peeling grain elevator.

And so it is that these salt deposits, formed 230 million years ago, now are being wired for the 21st century. High-speed data cables have been tugged through this prehistoric salt lick so that executives worldwide can tap into the CD-ROMs and floppy disks they stash here. Once the technology upgrade is complete, warehouse employees should be able to scan corporate records onto underground computers and zap them over the Internet in seconds, giving a Swiss bank or an oil rig off China instant access to data tucked in a Kansas cavern.

The original documents, meanwhile, will remain buried here, salted away in what Lee Spence, president of Underground Vaults, calls "one of the safest places in the world."

Yet such a boast raises the question: Do companies these days really need top security for their records?

Now that most data can be stored, duplicated and transported on computer disk, a lot of companies just put several copies of disks in different locations, relying on redundancy to safeguard their records, said Scott BeVier, vice president of BMS Catastrophe Inc., which helps companies recover data wiped out by disasters.

Even so, every computer disk usually is accompanied by a paper printout, as electronic data can become scrambled or fade over time. People even tend to print out their e-mail so they'll have something tangible to file. And when it comes to storing these hard copies -- or, for that matter, original computer disks -- "the first thing [companies] want would obviously be security," said Patti Fitzgerald of Disaster Recovery Journal, a St. Louis-based trade magazine.

"Your business," she said, "is only as good as your last backup."

Even underground vaults are not immune to disaster. A few years ago, a fire broke out in a Kansas City cave used to store -- along with documents -- cooking oil and kegs of beer. There wasn't enough oxygen to feed an all-out blaze, but the embers smoldered on and on, out of reach of firefighters. Eventually, warehouse managers had to seal the cave for good, leaving most of the papers inside to burn.

Such incidents are rare, and underground storage continues to be popular, with warehouses opening in railroad tunnels, surplus military bunkers, even old missile silos. One top-secret government vault in a Pennsylvania limestone mine has armed guards and a 10-ton iron gate.

The Hutchinson salt mine, although not as well armored, is farther underground than any other warehouse, and there's only one way in.

Most subterranean storage, including the Pennsylvania mine, can be reached via horizontal shafts wide enough to drive a trailer truck through. In Hutchinson, there's only a narrow vertical shaft and only one way to descend it.

"Until you're going down that shaft, bumping against the walls, you can't really understand" just how isolated the vault is, said David Grant, director of library services for 20th Century Fox, which stores its film and television archives in the mine. "You'd have to be a pretty good burglar to find what you wanted to steal and get it out of there."

Employees move about the vast storage bays (each the size of a football field) on bikes, electric scooters or golf carts. The walls taste of salt. So does your skin after a long day underground being dusted by drifting crystals.

Worst of all, the elevator returns "topside" only a few times a day, so employees can't dash out to run an errand or swing by a kid's softball game.

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