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Pair try to preserve some Cold War relics: Fallout shelter signs

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:21 PM

The first atom bomb wiped out Andrews Air Force Base. The second burst above Dulles International Airport. It was three times as big as the Andrews nuke - 10 megatons vs. three - and its effects were felt for miles.

Shock waves toppled the Washington Monument and cracked the cast-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol. That the blasts killed only 26,800 people and injured 68,300 seems amazing, but, of course, those numbers don't include the people who would later die from the radioactive poison that was thrown skyward and then fell back to Earth.

Fallout.

The problem, civil defense chief Frank B. Ellis said later as he assessed the mock atomic attack known as "Operation Alert 1961," was that citizens didn't understand the dangers of fallout. Should the Soviets ever launch a real nuclear strike, ticking time bombs would settle on skin, be breathed into lungs, lodge in alveoli.

"We cannot escape the fact that most people do not realize that fallout shelter space already exists within numerous buildings," Ellis said.

Such as this building right here, at 16th and Kenyon streets NW, where I'm standing with Adam Irish. Adam admires the Kennesaw apartment building not for its handsome design but for the faded metal sign attached to an exterior wall: "FALLOUT SHELTER" it reads.

"At one time, the District of Columbia had the most fallout shelters of any city in the United States," Adam says. The Justice Department paralegal, who counts "Dr. Strangelove" among his favorite films, says there were 415 in 1963 - and 1,000 in 1965. Since the spring, he has been working with Melissa Hopper to inventory Washington's fallout shelter signs and get them official protection.

"If the bombs were going to fall, they were going to fall here," Adam says.

Everyone knew that, so civil defense officials went to work. In 1958, a congressional report estimated that an "H-bomb raid" on 150 U.S. cities would kill 160 million people - almost the entire population then. However, noted The Washington Post, the same experts estimated that the same attack would "kill only 5 million people if blast and fallout shelters were available and a strategic evacuation program were in effect."

Distinctive signs - three triangles in a circle - went up on office buildings, hotels, schools, civic centers and other buildings whose design offered protection. "You'd need mass between you and the radioactive particles," Adam says.

Homeowners built shelters, too, although most kept that fact quiet. "We find a family is often sensitive about letting it be known that a shelter has been built," one real estate agent told The Post in 1961. "It seems they don't go around boasting about the fallout room the way they do about a new recreation room or den."

Not so the landlord at Westmont Gardens on Columbia Pike in Arlington County, who advertised his apartment building's fallout shelter along with its walk-in closets and parquet floors.

Adam admits the shelter signs are alien to his generation - he's 25 - but he's fascinated by how they map out a geography of fear. "The signs are reminders that your life was in peril living in the city in the Cold War," he says. "That's very powerful to me. It has real historical significance."

Adam estimates 5 to 10 percent of the signs remain. He catalogues them on his Web site, District Fallout (www.districtfallout.wordpress.com), and is lobbying the city's historic preservation agencies to protect them. (He wants building owners to know that if he's successful, it won't affect their ability to alter the structure, just the sign.)

He's looking for volunteers to help and he'd love to find an untouched shelter still stocked the way it was 50 years ago. "All these buildings would have been equipped with water, food and medical supplies for the occupants for two weeks," he says. "I'm positive there are one or two remaining in the city."

Of course, the irony is that the District's fallout shelters probably wouldn't have done much good. But they would have let us die together.

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