Friday, February 26, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fixtures Reveal It's No Ordinary Office -- Fema Headquarters Was Fallout Shelter

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau


Here at the Northwest headquarters of the agency that manages responses to natural disasters sits perhaps the safest toilet in the Puget Sound area.

Its flexible pipe makes it tough to burst. It has rubber padding on the bottom to absorb shock waves. The commode is bolted to the ground so solidly that a nuclear bomb wouldn't unseat it.

The bathroom fixture is part of an underground, two-story fallout shelter in northwest Bothell that now serves as the Northwest headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Only six such command posts exist in the country - others were built in the 1960s in Maynard, Mass.; Olney, Md.; Thomasville, Ga.; Denton, Texas; and Denver. They are so durable that they outlasted the Cold War and now serve as office spaces with no need for heating or air conditioning.

The Bothell bunker is a steel-reinforced concrete structure with a 12-inch-thick roof and even thicker outer walls.

Inside, through the above-ground entry, is a downward sloping walkway leading to an open, bolted steel door. Had you passed through this door 30 years ago, you would have been inside a command center designed to oversee emergency operations during a nuclear attack.

With a kitchen and enough food supplies to last at least a month, it was designed to hold about 300 people. Its water tank can pump 100 gallons a minute, employees said. And there are two generators, each the size of a sport-utility vehicle, that could

power the shelter for at least six weeks after a power failure.

"It was built on the outskirts of Seattle with the assumption that (nearby) cities could be targets for nuclear weapons," said Glenn Garcelon, who worked there during the early 1970s. "In the advance warning of a nuclear attack, (federal officials) would have an opportunity to speed out of town and head to Bothell, and get underground before an attack occurred."

Garcelon was among those who participated in underground exercises shortly after the bunker was built in 1968 on what was then a missile site on 228th Street Southwest in Snohomish County.

Department of Defense employees lived underground up to three days during those rescue exercises, concocting complex disaster scenarios, such as how to respond if in a nuclear attack the Bremerton ferry sank or if oil spilled on Puget Sound.

The strategizing always assumed "it would be a series of bombs hitting a number of places in the Northwest. And we would look at weather and try to track where we thought the fallout might go from the series of detonations," recalled Bob Grow.

The bunker was never meant to house the president, as long rumored, but rather to house emergency workers who could keep the government running should a nuclear blast destroy vital infrastructure or communications links, FEMA officials in Washington, D.C., said.

FEMA was created in 1979. After the threat of a Soviet attack subsided, it began focusing more on responding to floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Today, the underground facility houses 65 FEMA employees who manage emergency operations in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

About four years ago, FEMA Regional Director David de Courcy had the walls repainted and the carpets replaced to brighten up the place.

The agency wants to shed the facility's Cold War past, but the image of government employees working underground only heightens the mystery of what goes inside this once-classified shelter.

"There's a belief that there is more than just two floors there and that there are missiles on site," said Grow, "but none of that is true."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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