Tourists bombard Cold War getaway

Bunker: The secret is out and cameras are in at the cavernous facility in West Virginia built to stow away members of Congress.

May 11, 2000|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- The bus lets us off on a wooded hillside, and our tour guide gestures at an innocuous-looking green door at the entrance to what appears to be some sort of garage.

"We're going in there," John Newsick says.

Our little group of 20 or so stares at the door uncertainly. This is because a sign on the door says "Danger -- High Voltage," and there is something in the human animal that automatically shies away from incineration.

"That sign was used only as a deterrent," Newsick announces with a smile. "It was hoped that if anyone stumbled upon this place, they'd see the sign and just go away."

On this dazzling spring morning in the Allegheny Mountains, we are at the site of one of America's formerly best-kept secrets: a cavernous Cold War bunker designed to house members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack, buried under one wing of the famous resort hotel The Greenbrier.

Slowly, a huge, 18-inch thick, 25-ton blast door swings open and now we're inside the 112,544-square-foot facility. Built between 1958 and 1961, it was fully operational for 31 years and has been decommissioned and declassified for just five years.

And as we walk the musty 433-foot main corridor, with boxes of freeze-dried rations stacked neatly to one side and a decontamination area off to the left, we can almost hear the echoes of an earlier era: of backyard bomb shelters and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev angrily banging his shoe at the United Nations and threatening "We will bury you!" and the jittery, all-pervasive feeling that the world could come to an end at any moment.

Essentially, the plan for the bunker, code-named Project Greek Island, was this: If the Russkies dropped the Big One -- or if they were about to drop the Big One -- the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would begin evacuating Washington, some 300 miles to the northeast.

They would proceed to the sealed-off Government Relocation Facility at The Greenbrier, presumably to wait out the nuclear holocaust raging outside surrounded by walls and ceilings of 3- to 5-foot-thick reinforced concrete.

Under the original plan for the bunker, each member of Congress was allowed to bring only one aide.

But it was soon realized that few of the lawmakers would seek safety and leave their families behind to barbecue in the ensuing firestorm, and so provisions were made to accommodate the families, too, as many as 1,100 people in all.

Now, throngs of smiling, camera-toting tourists pay 25 bucks a head to tour the place, most of them the well-heeled clientele of The Greenbrier, where a standard room costs nearly $500 a night, a round of golf $150, and falconry, skeet-shooting and off-road driving in a Land Rover are other leisure pursuits.

In the decontamination area -- where those exposed to radioactive fallout would have made a pit stop -- the stark blue tiles have a retro, Dr. Strangelove-ish feel to them.

Even though the temperature is a constant 72 degrees here in the bunker, some of us find ourselves shivering.

The bunker's out of the bag

Imagine trying to keep a secret for 31 years.

Now imagine that secret involves a sprawling underground mini-city -- complete with the most up-to-date communication equipment, a self-contained power plant, a kitchen with a two-month stockpile of provisions, a 400-seat cafeteria, dormitories and a medical clinic with operating rooms -- that cost the Defense Department $10 million to build and was to be used only if the most unspeakable form of war broke out.

But somehow, the secret of the bunker was maintained.

The 60 or so Greenbrier workers who manned the facility during the Cold War signed non-disclosure pacts and were threatened with huge fines and prison terms if they blabbed.

And though whispers of a top-secret government facility had been rampant for years, the townspeople of tiny White Sulphur Springs elected not to solve the mystery of what was going on in the hillside near The Greenbrier.

"I think it became a point of pride with them, that the federal government was operating some super-secret facility in their little town," tour guide Newsick says.

We are sitting now in the main communications room, from which the surviving members of Congress would presumably have attempted to address any surviving U.S. citizens in the event of nuclear war.

Over the past 20 minutes or so, we have toured the power plant and seen its three 25,000-gallon water storage tanks, three 14,000-gallon diesel fuel storage tanks, a machine shop and an incinerator for waste disposal -- including the disposal of any corpses retrieved from the conflagration that would have been raging outside the bunker.

Now John Newsick is about to tell us who blew the secret of Project Greek Island.

It was a reporter, he says.

Oh, dear.

"In 1992, a reporter arrived with all sorts of information on the bunker," Newsick intones sadly. "It was believed that a former disgruntled federal employee gave the farm away."

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