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Homefront: Site R is secure, but it's not undisclosed

Sunday, December 16, 2001

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- Three hours after Osama bin Laden turned the Pentagon into a broken rectangle, five helicopters touched down a few hundred yards from Hal Neill's house at the base of Raven Rock Mountain along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

 
 
HOMEFRONT
Dennis Roddy

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette brings you "Homefront," a feature by staff writer Dennis B. Roddy that will appear Sundays and Wednesdays. "Homefront" will examine the continuing ways people have been affected by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

   
 

Within minutes, a convoy of SUVs with black-tinted windows zoomed up Harbaugh Valley Road, turned left, and deposited the weight of the free world inside Site R, the inexplicably named city-in-a-mountain from which the Pentagon has operated and, from all indications Vice President Dick Cheney has directed his office in the days since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Site R, with its six-stories of underground offices, subterranean water reservoir, and banks of mysterious antennas, dishes and massive, steel doors, has been a designated backup command center since it was hewn out of the mountain in 1951.

All America knows about Camp David, 10 miles to the south, and Three Mile Island, several Geiger counter clicks to the north. Conspiracy theorists and UFO cultists even knew about the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada.

For decades, though, Site R's presence was a village secret, barely acknowledged to outsiders and attracting little outside interest in turn.

"I can go to Gettysburg and say, 'Site R,' and they won't know what I'm talking about," said Neill, who has spent all of his 39 years living next to the entrance, about 30 miles from Gettysburg. His father worked there and told him little of the place's operations.

"There are four entrances, but I've only ever been able to find three of them," said Neill, as he stood in his back yard, looking over at the guard station next to two oversize metal doors in the hillside. Six military men in sweatsuits jogged their way down the driveway and back up again.

"They weren't doing that before the attacks," Neill said. "Now, they're working out."

In 1992, the federal government cut back on staff at Site R, thinking the end of the Cold War spelled less need for underground bunkers that could accommodate 3,000 people.

 
 
Map: Underground complex on Pennsylvania border

   
 

"In the Cold War, people thought they'd live underground for months waiting for the nuclear fallout to wear off," said Chris Hellman, a budget analyst at the Center for Defense Information. "The idea was to live as normally as possible." That would explain the barbershop planted hundreds of feet below the mountain next to Hal Neill's house.

After the terrorist attacks of three months ago, Site R's proximity to Camp David, Three Mile Island and the Letterkenny Army Depot has given it an uncomfortably public profile and its neighbors an earful. The tidy equilibrium of rural life has been upended. No one is surprised to hear jets over lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center stood. Above the Main Line Hobby Shop in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., it makes for strange nights.

"Day and night, you hear the airplanes," said Bonnie Wolfe, whose model railroad shop sits below the flight path of the military jets and helicopters that intermittently pass by, usually unseen, inevitably heard.

Wolfe said a friend who works at the site informed her that the airplanes are likely to become more numerous. Among presidents, the younger Bush rivals Eisenhower in his fondness for weekends at Camp David. The result, coupled with hair-trigger security, has made the placid southern border of central Pennsylvania the scene of occasional aerial circuses.

Two weeks ago, Stephen Hersh left his house in Chambersburg and took a hike along the Appalachian Trail. He noticed a small, white, private jet overhead. Suddenly, he said, a duo of fighter jets roared by, buzzed the errant plane, then departed.

"The little jet was rocking," Hersh said. That nervous bit of airborne security led Hersh to conclude -- correctly -- that President Bush was staying at Camp David.

Forty years earlier, Hersh was a counselor at a summer camp adjacent to Camp David. Some prankster told the counselors there was an exclusive girls camp nearby. An hour later, they were being held by Marine guards who wanted to know how they'd wandered into Camp David.

"Today they'd probably shoot us," Hersh said.

Misunderstandings -- mere suspicions -- have become common around Harbaugh Valley Road. Eight days after the Pentagon attack, Neill got a phone call at work from his wife.

"She said, 'Honey, you can't come home. They've got the road blocked off,' " he said. "My sister was at home and the cops evacuated her."

A truck, hauling furniture to accommodate the influx of bureaucrats, pulled up to the gate of Site R and promptly set off a chemical detector that was looking for hints of explosives.

Rumors ran wild. Some said a van loaded with dynamite had tried to crash the gate. Others said the drivers fled the scene and were finally caught.

The Department of Defense kept mum. Nobody heard any more about it. Just the sound of jets roaring in the night.

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