Friday, April 12, 2024


Buried in a box at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas there is a short memo describing the death of a man at the classified federal emergency relocation site now known as the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center (MWEOC) in Bluemont, Virginia. In a memorandum dated March 31, 1960, Leo A. Hoegh, the administrator of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (ODCM), wrote the following to General Andrew J. Goodpaster Jr., President Eisenhower’s Staff Secretary: 
On Wednesday evening an employee of a Navy contractor [ed. note: this company is Irons & Reynolds, Inc.] working on the WHASA (White House Army Signal Agency) communications project at REDACTED was killed by carbon monoxide. Four other employees are hospitalized [ed. note: press accounts name five individuals]. 
Apparently a gasoline sump pump, or kerosene heaters, located at the bottom of the hole created the gas. Little is known at this time as to how it was discovered or how many men were in the area. Some of the casualties were stricken in the course of rescue operations. 
OCDM personnel, guards and the fire company, assisted in the rescue, emergency medical treatment, administrative actions and transfer of the victims to REDACTED. The Navy is conducting an investigation.
I was unable to find any follow-up correspondence regarding the tragic incident either at the Eisenhower Library or at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. A representative of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's office told me that he could find no record of the investigation. 

But thanks to local newspaper coverage of the accident, we know the name of the man who lost his life at Mount Weather: Harry Wilburn Tibbs, a 32-year-old Virginia native with a wife and three young children. According to the Winchester Evening Star, Tibbs had been in a “shaft” helping clear out water from melting snow when he and several co-workers became “overcome” by fumes created by “a gasoline engine used to power a portable pump.”
The Commonwealth of Virginia Certificate of Death for Mr. Tibbs lists the cause of death as “carbon monoxide poisoning.” Under the section of the certificate titled “Describe How Injury Occurred,” Dr. James R. York wrote, “Exposure to gas fumes in closed building while at work.” Mr. Tibbs’ occupation on the certificate is listed as “Laborer” and his “Kind of Business or Industry” is entered as “Gov’t Installation.” 

Harry Tibbs’s funeral was held Saturday, April 2, 1960 in Berryville, Virginia. The announcement for the service that ran in the Winchester Evening Star the previous day may be the first published reference to Mount Weather and its mission. It refers to the site where Tibbs died as the “Mt. Weather federal relocation project.”
Beyond the government documents and newspaper clips, who was Harry Tibbs? I reached out to his family to learn more. Hal Tibbs, Harry’s oldest son, was just five when the Mount Weather accident occurred. “I remember people coming to the house at night to tell my mom,” Hal told me in a telephone interview. “We were woken up and taken to our grandparents.” He added that his cousin had custody of his father’s clothes from the day of the accident. “I remember there was a tear in the khaki work pants from where, I assume, they tried to pull him up (from the shaft).” 

Hal Tibbs has his father’s U.S. Army ring and Bowie knife from when Harry served in the Philippines from 1946-1947. Hal recalls that in civilian life his father worked in construction and in a slaughterhouse. 

Hal says that, to the best of his knowledge, representatives of the federal government never reached out to the family after his father’s death to offer condolences or financial assistance. His mother, Charlotte A. Tibbs (now deceased), received a very small worker’s compensation settlement that was issued weekly over a period of years. She remarried in the year following the accident. 

A little more than a month after the accident that claimed Harry Tibbs's life at Mount Weather, President Dwight Eisenhower visited the site as part of a civil defense drill known as Operation Alert. He received a tour of the facilities by Leo Hoegh. There's no documentary evidence that the president was ever told of the fatality.

Shortly after learning about Mr. Tibbs’s story, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with FEMA – a successor agency to the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization – to see if a memorial plaque exists at Mount Weather for those who lost their lives building the site. A couple of years later, a FEMA representative responded to my FOIA informing me that no such plaque exists. 

Isn't it long overdue that the federal government officially recognizes the sacrifice of Harry W. Tibbs and others who have died building Cold War era relocation sites?

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library 
White House Office, Office of the Staff Secretary: Records, 1952-61
Subject Series: Alpha Subseries
Box 21
Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (4)
Hoegh to Goodpaster re accident at emergency location, 3/31/60

"Federal Project Mishap Kills 1, Sends 5 to Hospital," Winchester Evening Star, March 31, 1960

Judge Advocate General's representative to Bill Geerhart on October 12, 2022. The representative stated that he searched their electronic database as well as "a whole room of physical 3x5 cards" for the year 1960. No records were found for an investigation of the accident at Mount Weather on March 30, 1960.

Commonwealth of Virginia Certificate of Death for Harry W. Tibbs accessed via

Tibbs Service, Winchester Evening Star, April 1, 1960

Telephone interview with Hal Tibbs conducted by Bill Geerhart, September 29, 2022

Worker's Compensation claim information was obtained from claim no. 507-404 (C60-117976), November 14, 1961, Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Workmen's Compensation

Freedom of Information Act Request, FEMA, 2023-FEFO-00008. Response date: April 4, 2024

Other known fatalities resulting from the construction of Cold War era relocation sites are the following - all during the construction of Raven Rock (Site R): 

LeRoy R. Fleagle [1926-1951]
Roland P. Kelly [1923-1951]
Charles S. Stanley [1910-1951]

It should also be noted here that in addition to the fatality of Harry W. Tibbs, the following five persons were hospitalized as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation at Mount Weather on March 30, 1960:

Arthur A. Breeden [1932-2012]
Arthur A. Fox [1927-1980]
Sanford B. Lam [1925-2014] (Mr. Lam had been employed by the U.S. Bureau of Mines)
Calvin L. Myers [1933-2019]
Delbert Monroe Payne [1932-2023]


I am grateful to the family of Harry W. Tibbs for being willing to speak with me regarding their late father.


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