In a yard in Arizona, a man stands triumphant next to several feet of rubble. Tipped off by the previous owners, he has discovered something remarkable beneath the earth. But as he begins to pry open the door, what might he find inside?
In 2015 John Sims – a fire department rescue technician from Tucson, Arizona – was looking for a new home. And when his friend put his house up for sale, it must have seemed like the perfect solution.
Intriguingly, Sims’ friend had something to say about the property that was a little different from the usual sales speech. According to him, a mysterious hatch was rumored to be buried in the yard.
At the height of the Cold War back in the 1960s, 18 nuclear warheads had been stationed in the desert around Tucson, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. This led Sims’ friend to suspect that the hatch might lead to some kind of secret fallout shelter beneath the property.
For Sims, it was a mystery that was difficult to resist. “The first thing I did was ask if he had a shovel,” he confessed to the Arizona Daily Star. “‘I’ll dig it up right now,’” he said.
Sims decided to purchase the house in summer 2015. And, soon after moving in, he became so curious about the rumors of a hatch in the yard that he began to make his own investigations.
At the local record office, he found a permit for construction on the property that contained a rough sketch of an underground structure. Encouraged, he began to dig.
At first, Sims’ work was in vain. His excavations revealed nothing, and he began to fear that the hatch and whatever was beneath it were gone for good – if they had ever existed at all.
Then he decided to employ the services of a specialist, who used metal detectors to inspect the yard and determine the best areas to dig. His first suggestion turned up nothing, but on the second attempt they struck gold.
Underneath three feet of earth, Sims uncovered a metal hatch just like the one his friend had told him about. Eager to find out what was inside, he pried open the covering – although, frustratingly, he knew he’d have to wait a little longer until he could properly explore.
As a specialist in confined space rescues for the fire department, Sims knew exactly how dangerous it could be to venture down through the hatch alone and without proper preparation. First, he invited some coworkers around with equipment to test that the air was safe.
He also knew that he needed to have others around for his own safety. “I know too much about confined space and I was alone at home,” he said. “Especially if the lid fell back in, there was no way I could lift it from underneath it.”
Finally, Sims was ready to descend down through the hatch. There, buried beneath his backyard, he found the fallout shelter that his friend had suspected lay there all along – and it was in surprisingly good condition.
Although the shelter was filled with rubble, the structure seemed to be sound. It consisted of a spiral staircase plunging ten feet below the ground, leading into a domed building with a diameter of 12 feet.
The shelter would have been used to provide a safe space for residents of the property to retreat to in the event of a nuclear blast. An air filtration system existed to pump safe air from the surface to the people hiding below.
Most likely, the shelter was never used. Sims estimates that it was filled in at some time between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s – a period of relaxing of political tensions when the U.S. pursued arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union.
Today, Sims has been hard at work restoring the shelter to its former glory. First, he used buckets to remove all of the rubble from the structure by hand.
Then he began work on making the shelter more accessible. He drafted in the help of friends working in construction and poured concrete over a frame to create a new and improved entrance.
Looking toward the future, Sims plans to tackle a rebuild of the stairs leading down into the shelter. He is also searching for period props to complete the look, and he’s considering options for the space for once it is finally restored.
On Reddit – where the story has generated hundreds of thousands of views – people have been quick to come up with their own suggestions. Many thought the space would make the ideal location for a “man cave” complete with surround sound, while others noted that its year-round cool temperature would make for an ideal wine cellar. Yet whatever Sims decides to do with the shelter, he certainly got more than he bargained for when taking on his new home.
Sims isn’t the only person to have come across a strange opening into another time on their property, though. Simon Marks, a 37-year-old computer support worker from Luton, England, was reversing out of his house when he heard a crumbling sound under one of the wheels of his Vauxhall Zafira. He carried on reversing, and the car abruptly jolted. Then the wheel got stuck. At first he thought he’d driven onto a flowerbed, but then he saw the damage…
“This hole had just opened up in the front garden,” Marks told SWNS TV in October 2016. After safely moving his car, he turned off the engine and examined the newly opened crater of broken paving stones. What he saw made him nervous. “I was just terrified the whole house was going to vanish,” he told the BBC.
“I thought it might be a sinkhole,” he said, referring to a “cover-collapse” sinkhole which appears suddenly when the roof of a cave collapses. Indeed, sinkholes can span anything from a few feet to hundreds of yards in diameter. And the largest ones, as Marks certainly understood, can swallow entire buildings.
In fact, the largest ever recorded sinkhole – the Qattara Depression in Egypt, which measures 50 miles by 75 miles – is big enough to swallow an entire city – or two. The hole in Marks’ driveway was probably not going to eat Luton, however. In theory, it could reduce his four-bedroom house, last valued at the equivalent of $515,000, to worthless rubble, though.
Marks tentatively moved some of the broken slabs to assess the risk to his property. But upon clearing the opening of the crater, he discovered that the hole was not a sinkhole after all – at least not a natural one. In fact, he was staring into an entirely man-made opening in the ground. And there was a ladder.
Obviously, Marks had to investigate. But instead of climbing down into the hole, he wisely lowered a camera on a selfie stick, took several pictures and sent them over to his dad. There were apparently two rooms down there. And when Marks’ father saw them, he immediately understood.
“We could see all the structure inside, so we set about digging out all the mud,” Marks told Live Leak. “It was so well structured with the concrete roof and the walls, it was quite clear what it was going to be.” Indeed, his dad had it spot on. And Google quickly verified it.
Built during World War Two, the structure in Marks’ front garden was, in fact, a bomb shelter. “We Googled it and found there are quite a few in this area,” Marks told The Sun on 26 October. “It is made from concrete lintels and is in immaculate condition.”
In fact, bomb shelters were once widespread across the United Kingdom. During World War Two, Nazi Germany launched a sustained bombing campaign across the country and tried to disable the British Royal Air Force. The so-called “Battle of Britain” was intended to be a prelude to a ground invasion, but the plan never came to fruition.
As protection against blasts and falling rubble, larger houses had basements and cellars. But for those living in more modest accommodations, there were communal shelters, railway arches, subways and other ad hoc arrangements. Luton was then a formidable industrial town. But on August 30, 1940 bombs set it ablaze in the most destructive raid that the town would see in the entire war.
No air raid siren sounded on that warm summer afternoon, as 194 bombs fell on Luton. Most were dispatched within a matter of seconds, forming a line across the town. Some 59 individuals were killed, while 140 were injured, and hundreds lost their homes. The main target of the raid, however, had been a factory manufacturing airplane parts.
Luton, like other industrial centers, was bombed several times more during the war, particularly in the fall of 1940. Then in 1944, the area would be hit by Hitler’s “vengeance weapon” – the dreaded V2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. It hit a vicarage in Biscot Road. The vicar, however, was said to be unharmed and continued his duties shortly after.
Some 3.5 million “Anderson shelters” were built in the U.K. during the war and the months preceding it. The exact year that the shelter in Marks’ driveway was built is unknown, however. Interestingly, though, Marks’ shelter actually pre-dates his house by a generation.
Marks acquired the house from a couple who had built it in the 1970s. “The previous owner must have known it was there,” he told The Sun. “And when he built the house and put a garden in he must have filled it in.” What then, if anything, stood before the house? And who built the shelter? Was it public or private?
As yet, these questions remain unanswered. But we do know that the previous owner seemingly had a very casual attitude to the bomb shelter, as witnessed by the trash and the earth that fills it. “He clearly wasn’t very worried about it, and it just sat there until the hatch fell through,” Marks told The Sun.
As such, Marks and his father, Gerald, 67, had a lot of digging to do. “Since Saturday it’s been a case of dig, dig dig,” Marks told The Sun. “We’re about five feet down at the moment so it’s just another five feet to go until it’s finished… I think we’re going to have to get a skip in because there’s so much rubbish to get rid of.”
But as Marks cleared out the shelter with buckets, he started recovering artifacts, such as fragments of old newspapers and glass bottles. And now he could finally climb inside, he found that one of the walls had been bricked up. However, Marks didn’t seem to have much appetite for knocking it down.
“One of the walls has been bricked up,” he told The Sun. “I’m 90 percent sure we won’t find out any more rooms, but we don’t know. They might have bricked up one of the walls when the house was built to make way for the foundations. If that’s the case we’ll just have to leave it.”
However, Marks has also said he wants to preserve the shelter – if its structure allows. “It’s incredible to think it has all been made by hand,” he told The Sun. “It’s part of our history so it should be kept.”
Indeed, history is not only the study of geopolitics but of everyday life. When the lights went out in Luton, its population had to carry on. And bomb shelters – as common as they were vital to survival – were an essential part of their wartime experience.