There was an unexpected disclosure when John Sims bought his midtown home from a friend earlier this year.
A leftover remnant from the Cold War — a bomb shelter — might be buried in his backyard. Building records suggested the bunker was built by Whitaker Pools in 1961 but whether it had survived for 54 years was a mystery to his friend.
“The first thing I did is ask if he had a shovel,” Sims said. “I’ll dig it up right now.”
Sims braved the triple-digit temperatures this summer, shortly after moving in, with the hopes of uncovering the secret underground hideaway.
With nothing more than a few shallow holes in his backyard to show for his efforts, Sims temporarily gave up, worried the bomb shelter was underneath a bricked-in corner of the yard or had collapsed.
He paid a consultant who used metal detectors to identify where he should dig. Sims almost gave up before hitting the metal cap covering the entrance to the bomb shelter about 3 feet underground.
His first thought was thankfulness that he hadn’t found something else.
“I was hoping it wasn’t a septic tank,” Sims said.
A little more digging revealed the shelter’s entrance.
A captain with Rural/Metro Fire Department, Sims was able to pry off the heavy metal hatch but waited a day before descending the spiral staircase. With advanced training in rescues in confined spaces, he knew to test the air for mold as well as have a few people nearby in case he got trapped.
“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.”
Once the exploring began, he found a small bomb shelter with fiberglass dome construction, full of rubble.
“I was really hoping it was going to be a little microcosm … a time capsule full of civil-defense boxes, radiation detectors and cots and stuff like that,” Sims said.
First priority was repairing the spiral staircase and consultation with engineers and contractors for advice on restoring the structure.
Sims is in search of props, such as civil defense water jugs.
He plans on spending the night in the shelter at least once after it is restored and looks forward to using it as a retreat from the summer heat, as the temperature hovers around 72 degrees year-round.
Sims said Whitaker Pools built several similar bomb shelters in Tucson during the 1960s.
“The Cuban Missile Crisis was a big push for them in that era,” he said.
For homeowners curious about whether there’s a bomb shelter in their backyard, Sims says to start with the disclosures.
“It is something that should be in there if you want to dig up the backyard for a pool,” Sims said.
The city of Tucson or Pima County should have information as well.
Sims cautions anyone from diving in too quickly.
“Jumping into holes in the ground is generally not a good idea,” Sims said.
Toxic air in a tunnel, or a cave can incapacitate a person and pose a risk to rescuers, he said.
A post to Reddit about his backyard find generated hundreds of comments and several hundred thousand page views.
For now, Sims is spending his days designing what his bomb shelter will look like once it is rebuilt and stocked with civil defense goodies.