Haven from bioterrorism

The New York Times
Originally published at The NY Times by Teresa Riordan on October 29, 2001
THE economy may be tanking, but for Walton McCarthy, business couldn’t be better.

Earlier this month, Mr. McCarthy received a patent for his “life cell,” an air purifying apparatus and communications system that he contends could transform an ordinary living room into safe, self-sufficient oasis in the midst of a bioterrorist attack.

Mr. McCarthy said his company, Radius Engineering, located near Concord, N.H., was two months behind in production on the life cells, which sell for $4,500, and six months behind on its underground shelters, which sell for $16,000 to nearly $60,000.

“We’ve got double shifts working six days a weeks,” Mr. McCarthy said, noting that Radius is planning to expand production twelvefold in the coming year.

The life cell device, which is 4 feet in diameter, is basically a battery-powered filtering system that draws in air through a hose from the outside, purifies it and then pumps it into a room that has been sealed off from the rest of the house — and the world. The device is equipped with CB radio and scanner, a 12-volt lamp and a “chemical agent detector kit,” designed to help the citizen under siege determine exactly which toxic agent has been unleashed. (Add-on options include a chemical toilet and water supplies.)

“The life cell goes right in the living room — it replaces your coffee table,” Mr. McCarthy said. Although a buyer may opt to leave it in the basement while awaiting Armageddon — it can be assembled in 30 minutes — the 500-pound battery system might be hard to lug upstairs in a hurry.

Wouldn’t a gas mask be a better bargain for the average safety-conscious American? Last week, for example, the starting bid on eBay for an “Israeli Gas Mask and Nuke Biochem Suit” was $79.

“Gas masks don’t work,” Mr. McCarthy said. “People think you can wear one for a day or two. If you’re trained, you might be able to keep one on for two hours. They are hot and uncomfortable and make it hard to breathe.”

Mr. McCarthy, who is 49 and thus old enough to remember the “duck and cover” drills that ostensibly prepared schoolchildren for a nuclear attack during the Cold War, said he did not recall having been preoccupied with the thought of nuclear war while growing up. And his family did not have a backyard bomb shelter.

But since his graduation from Montana State University in 1974, he has become an authority on underground shelters. He is the author of two books, “Nuclear Shelterist” and “Principles of Protection: The U.S. Handbook of NBC Weapon Fundamentals and Shelter Engineering Standards.”

For Mr. McCarthy, “NBC” stands for nuclear-biological-chemical. But he said he was interviewed once for an NBC television show about survivalists called “Ancient Prophecies IV.” He is now more circumspect about giving interviews. “They probably made me look like a looney tunes,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy received patent 6,296,693 for his life cell. But he was selling underground disaster shelters long before it occurred to him to turn a living room into a chemically and biologically secure fortress. The standard Radius underground shelter, has a fiberglass, egg-shaped shell. Meant to accommodate six people, it comes with a toilet, a shower, food storage, an air filtration system, and three weeks’ worth of battery power.

“That’s our Ford Escort model,” Mr. McCarthy said. The most expensive version listed on Radius’s Web site (www.radius-defense.com) is a military model, which costs $57,000. It provides life support for up to two years, is designed to avoid detection by radar or thermal or magnetic sensors, and is meant to withstand “gunfire and hand grenades.”

Mr. McCarthy said some potential customers expected the shelter to be like a posh condominium. But the top-of-the-line model is only as big as a single-car garage. “People come into this wondering where the color TV set is,” he said, sighing.

Who are the typical buyers? Rather than the stereotypical “militia-type people, shoot ’em types of guys,” Mr. McCarthy said, his customers are more likely to be safety-conscious people — like mothers who buy organic produce and make their children wear bike helmets. “We sell it to the type of people who wear seatbelts and don’t smoke,” he said.

But in 1996, according to a document from the Department of Commerce, the United States revoked Mr. McCarthy’s export privileges for 10 years for “willfully, knowingly and unlawfully dealing and attempting to deal in property intended for exportation to Iraq, specifically an underground shelter known as an “S30 Remote Tactical Base.’ ”

Mr. McCarthy said that he never actually shipped any shelters to Iraq but that doing so would present no moral quandary for him. “I think of it as a humanitarian product,” he said. “Do children in Iraq deserve to be protected? It’s the same thing if someone from the Ku Klux Klan or some supremacist group calls me, as long as they are going to use it lawfully. I despise all of the hate groups, but I can’t play God. I can’t say they don’t deserve to live.”

Photo: Walton McCarthy stands next to one of his underground shelters, for which he has a six-month backlog. They sell for $16,000 to $60,000.

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