Tracey tong/metro ottawa


Diefenbunker programs manager Jesse Alexander explains the importance of a blast tunnel at the Cold War bunker in Carp recently.

Sometimes, the ghosts of what might have happened are just as haunting as those that actually exist.

Ninety feet underground, I’m standing in the morgue in the deepest part of the Diefenbunker, an area where members of the public aren’t to venture. Overhead, there’s an ominous thump.

But there’s nothing to be afraid of. The four-storey underground bunker, built in Carp in 1959 to house 535 essential government and military officials in the event of nuclear war, is now a museum and a National Historic Site nicknamed the Diefenbunker, after John Diefenbaker, who was prime minister at the time the public learned of its existence.

Still, there’s something about the bunker — built in secrecy during the height of the cold war — that chills me.

“Sometimes I’m walking through the blast tunnel and hear footsteps echoing into nothingness,” said Jesse Alexander, the Diefenbunker’s programs manager. “These are the times that I reflect on how surreal and frightening it is that they had to build (this) place.”

Entered through a 378-foot long blast tunnel designed to channel away nuclear shock waves, the 368-room bunker is encased in gravel and concrete filled with reinforcing steel.

Today, it’s a reminder of the importance of peace, and of how close the world came to nuclear war.

Alexander said he can’t imagine the plight of a person, perhaps a stenographer, who would be torn from her family in a time of disaster simply because her name was on the list.

Would she have had time to say goodbye? Perhaps she’d have wondered if it was the end of civilization, he said.

“I think the enormity of the situation and the stress of being away from loved ones would have been absolutely overwhelming,” said Alexander.

For that reason, a lot of thought was put into every aspect of the design, right down to the interior esthetics. Alexander pointed out the use of light colours, to combat depression, and stripes designed to fend off claustrophobia.

Still, nothing distracts from the fact that it was sealed from the world above.

“It had to be self-sufficient because people wouldn’t know if there was anything left on the surface,” said Alexander. “They had to have their own everything — water, food, air filtration systems, electricity and fuel reserves.”

Eerily, Diefenbunker has a morgue, prisoner’s cell and medical operating facilities, hinting at possible disasters and tragedies that could have been.

Alexander hopes the Diefenbunker will evoke that discussion as it celebrates 10 years as a museum in 2008.

“You can’t be in here and not think about it,” said building and systems manager Brad Heath. “They were preparing for the worst.”

Metro Ottawa's Tracey Tong is an award-winning reporter. A Burlington native, Tong's career has taken her all over Ontario. Her Cityscapes column appears every Wednesday.