a FATHER’S PROMISE (SEAT BELTS REQUIRED)
Hebei villager constructs large emergency survival pods
by Stephen Chen in Langfang, Hebei / 13 December, 2012
Doomsday fears gripped Qiantun, a small village in Langfang, Hebei, 20 years ago. There was no internet and televisions were rare, so villagers had no way of knowing that the rumours were based on the wild predictions of two foreigners – a born-again Christian in the United States and a preacher in South Korea – who predicted that the world would end in late September or late October 1992. Farmers in Qiantun discussed it seriously and that made Liu Daiyue, who had not yet started primary school, ask her father whether the world was about to end. “No,” her father, Liu Qiyuan, then 25, said. “But people say it will,” she said. “They are wrong,” he said. “I’m afraid Dad. Can you build mum and I an indestructible house?” she asked. After a moment’s pause, Liu Qiyuan said: “Yes, I can.” He will fulfill his promise to his daughter this week by finishing construction of six spherical emergency shelters that he says could save his family and relatives from big floods, earthquakes or solar storms. The timing is coincidental but the project is being completed just before another rumoured doomsday – December 21, the date the ancient Mayan calendar supposedly ends.
Each of the four-tonne capsules can hold up to 14 people behind two thick layers of fireproof, shock-resistant carbon fibre, with enough food and water to survive for a few weeks. Designed to roll with whatever blows come its way, the shelter would survive an earthquake or tsunami. It has an air pump with a filter to deal with radioactive fallout, a periscope to look for dangers and some LED lamps for reading. It can even accommodate a queen-sized bed. If the world was flooded, survivors could set out for the nearest island, using an attached outboard motor.
The project has been a big financial burden for Liu, a semi-retired furniture maker, but he shrugs it off. “My daughter’s concern has troubled me for two decades,” he said. “I can only sleep tight with the problem solved.” When construction began in March, most of his neighbours believed he had gone mad. Most villagers, influenced by government propaganda, believed they could count on the government in the event of a disaster. Education on emergencies, especially in the countryside, is accompanied by footage of soldiers carrying sandbags in floods and stretchers in quake zones. Liu never believed the propaganda and his disbelief was strengthened after he watched the disaster movie 2012, which highlighted the human race’s vulnerability to global calamities. “What impressed me most was the scene in which the president of the United States stands helplessly by as a tsunami pushes a big ship towards the White House. He can do nothing for his people,” Liu said. “If people in the US cannot count on their government, we should expect less from ours. We must help ourselves.”
Liu also found some supporters. Some neighbours and friends lent him money to help fund the project, which has cost nearly 2 million yuan (HK$2.48 million) – about 200 times the average income of a Hebei farmer last year. Furniture making is Qiantun’s core industry and many families make tables and chairs for buyers from Beijing. Liu opened the village’s first furniture factory and he also made the village’s first living-room fish tank, which turned out to be a big business as living standards rose in nearby cities. “Liu Qiyuan seemed to have the Midas touch. Anything he touched turned to gold,” one villager said. “He could have become a millionaire by now if he was not off pursuing some crazy ideas.”
Liu’s family, including his daughter, all opposed his plan. But after decades of hard work, Liu had established a large furniture factory and asked his daughter to take care of the business. “I was a naive little girl when he made that promise, and I tried to talk him out of the project,” Liu Daiyue said. “But he would not listen.” Liu Guiwen, Liu Qiyuan’s wife, said the project had drained a huge amount of cash from their furniture factory. Ten full-time workers were hired to make the shelters and their salaries were not cheap. “The final cost is several times higher than the limit that I set,” she said. “But my husband won’t stop once he starts a project.” His wife and daughter now consider him the best husband and father in the world. “When I see with my own eyes that my childhood dream has come true, I know that I am the most fortunate daughter in the world,” Liu Daiyue said. “The love of a family cannot be measured by money.” Liu Guiwen said her husband was the most charming and sexy man in the world when working on the project. “Liu Qiyuan has definitely had no time to think about a mistress,” she said. A lack of schooling caused problems for him when he was planning the project. A high school dropout, he had only a basic knowledge of physics and no background in materials science. He did not know how to read news on a computer, let alone build sophisticated mathematical models for structural analysis. He also had no books to give him instructions on how to build a disaster shelter and had no idea whether other people around the world had tried similar projects. “Everything, from the reinforcement structure to the choice of bolts and screws, came out of my head,” Liu said.
His peasant wit helped him defeat the challenge of physics. Armed with Newton’s laws, more than 10 years of furniture-making experience and technical advice from his business partners, Liu built a small laboratory to recreate and study natural disasters such as tsunami and earthquakes. He determined the optimal shape of the capsule by observing water spilling out of a bucket; he did collision tests on the shelter using cargo trucks and rolled the sphere down a bank into a canal while he was strapped inside; and he changed the designs of the internal framework and a carbon fibre cover with every failure and imperfection he encountered. His relationship with his father was shaky after he dropped out of school despite his being regarded as the brightest child in the family. However, the survival capsule project has helped bridge the gap with his 80-year-old father. His father said: “It is not perfect and there needs to be improvement, but it is the right thing to do,” his father said.
Money is the big problem now. The project has not only depleted most of the family’s savings but also created a lot of debt. Liu Qiyuan sees little immediate prospect of selling his sturdy but primitive-looking shelters to a private or government buyer. “But men don’t live just to make money,” he said. “I don’t think doomsday will happen this year. I hope it never comes. “But my design could be used by cruise ships to save lives. If anyone survives a shipwreck with my device, I will call it a good investment.”
UNDERGROUND LUXURY VERSION
Robert Vicino Built an Underground City Where You Can Ride out the Apocalypse
by Austin Considine / 12/21/12
Robert Vicino wants it to be clear he’s not a religious man. He is, like a lot of Southern Californians I’ve met, what he calls “highly spiritual.” So when he talks about the apocalyptic “message” he received 32 years ago, it’s understood that message could have come from anywhere—god, the universe, aliens, the collective unconscious. It’s hard to say. The truth is, he doesn’t remember much about how he received the message today. But he’s spent millions of his own dollars building giant underground doomsday shelters preparing for the gist: that the world as we know it is going to end, probably in the next few years. “I was inspired with a very powerful message around 1980 that I needed to build a shelter for 1,000 people deep underground to survive something that was coming that was going to be an extinction event,” he explained in an extensive phone interview. “That’s it, that’s all I had. But it was powerful. So powerful that I had a successful business with 100 employees and I took time off to go up into the mountains and search on weekends looking for an underground mine or cave that could be cartoned and converted.”
Today, Vicino is the owner and founder of Vivos, a company that sells space in luxury survival complexes around the country. It’s what he likes to call “life assurance”–mini underground cities, in effect, for people ride out the end of civilization in a community setting with good food, television, even a potential dating pool. He says demand has increased 1,000 percent this year compared to last—itself a 1,000 percent increase over the year before. More than 100,000 people have applied for a space in one of his various shelters around the world, in various stages of completion, he says; more than 1,000 people have bought some kind of shelter from Vivos so far. Vivos sells smaller, family-sized shelters for individual purchase, but most of the clients so far have purchased space in the community shelters—a nice bulwark, one supposes, against the kind of isolation and poor planning that could turn a single-family shelter into a Donner Party reunion.
“When we’re done, with the current shelters that are in tow or complete, we will only be able to accommodate 6,000 people,” Vicino said. “That’s less than one-in-a-million people on earth.” As far as he’s concerned, that’s “not enough,” but there’s only so much he can do. Business keeps growing, but he says he’s still several million dollars in the hole. Not that he seems worried. He’s more worried about the people who don’t have an end-times contingency plan, he says. “What are the other six billion, ninety-nine-whatever-it-is people going to do?” he said. “I’ll tell you what they’re going to do. They’re going to wait until the last minute and say ‘Well, is this really for real? Is this really going to happen?’ And when they see it is when there’s widespread public notice from the government or somebody, or you look up in the sky and see it’s going to happen… Or a series of nukes has gone off or there’s a viral pandemic that’s spreading quickly. So when people really become motivated is when it’s too late to find a solution.” Vicino wasn’t always in the doomsday business. Before that he was a real estate mogul, a businessman, and an inventor. According to United States Patent and Trademark Office records,he owns at least 12 patents, most of which involved inflating something with air. One design, filed in 1982, was for a bottle-shaped, inflatable “promotional device” for towing across water, the aquatic equivalent of an airplane banner. Another, filed that same year, was for an inflatable object that looked like a large soda bottle. More patents are awaiting approval, Vicino says. Most of the designs have been for devices whose sole function is advertising.
Inflatables may sound like a modest life’s work, but inflatables made Vicino rich. You may not know his face, but you almost certainly know his work. For the 1980 comedy classic, Airplane, he designed the inflatable “Otto the Autopilot.” In 1983, he famously mounted a 90-foot high, inflatable King Kong to the Empire State building. It was, in its way, a perfect symbol for the money-making potential that arises when real estate meets something monstrous and inflated. The sky is the limit. About five years ago, Vicino says, he finally had enough money and security to put his dream into action, and hasn’t received a paycheck since. (He hopes to make a profit someday so he can at least stay in business, he adds.) Today, six underground complexes are underway in undisclosed locations around the country, including one in Nebraska, and another in the Rockies, respectively designed to accommodate 900 and 1,000 people. Another, designed to hold 2,000 people, is in the works, with “a ton of interest in Australia.” Only one, located somewhere in Western Indiana, is fully stocked and ready to go. (The Rockies shelter, which is much bigger, is “virtually up and running,” Vicino said, but not quite ready.) Originally, the folks at Vivos thought it may be possible to build entirely new structures for their shelters. They quickly discovered that it was much cheaper and easier to appropriate one of the country’s many empty, underground shelter complexes already in existence, relics of the Cold War.
“These are nuclear blast-proof hard bunkers that were built by our government at a cost of probably $15 million or more back in the day, so you couldn’t really duplicate those things today for anything close to what we’re able to acquire them for,” said Steve Kramer, an early Vivos customer who has since become something of a de facto employee of the company, though not to the extent that he could quit his day job. As they stood, however, the Cold War shelters were by no means livable in any but the most Spartan sense. They still required millions of dollars in refurbishing. “In each one there’s $10 million-dollar-plus retrofitting and outfitting,” Kramer said. “You can’t just move in. They have to be completely redone. The whole chemical and biological filtration system is replaced; there’s new generators that are put in; new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are put in; they go through the plumbing—basically that’s all changed, like the septic tank; then there’s all of the food and the outfitting and the furniture. So it’s a major, major, major outfitting.”
The Indiana shelter is large enough to hold 80 people comfortably for an entire year, with all the food, water, and off-grid generator supplies a massive shelter deep underground requires. At least two members with separate keys are required to open the facility, which otherwise stays closed. Technically, any two members have access at all times, though Vicino noted it takes three hours to shut down the facility once it’s opened. Ideally, an event like Superstorm Sandy isn’t enough to open it up, he says. It’s for apocalypse-level doom only. Still, he thinks everyone will be on the same page if the shit hits the fan. “We prefer, and we’ve asked [members], ‘Do not, either start it up or shut it down unless we’re there or you need to.’ I mean, if it’s an emergency, do what you gotta do.” Standard rooms in Indiana are outfitted with two bunk beds to hold four people, with access to shared bathrooms. Spots there are still available for $50,000 per adult, $35,000 for children. (Before it opened, spaces were $35,000 per adult—still the going price at the bigger shelters that aren’t yet ready). Other, more luxurious accommodations have their own bathrooms and common spaces, and go for $85,000 a person. From the looks of a video tour available on the group’s website, the Indiana location includes common area amenities like a home theater with leather recliners, dining rooms, multi-user kitchens, a Laundromat, and a very ominous soundtrack. (“Join us for the next Genesis,” it reads.)
“What Vivos is, is a modern-day fortress or citadel, where our members are safe and secure, with all the supplies they need to ride it out. And we can defend the facilities. So if the rest of the world’s gone crazy, our people will at least be in a safe haven,” Vicino said. He wouldn’t elaborate on how, exactly, the fortresses were armed. But he emphasized that they’re equipped for “not offensive, but defensive measures. I can tell you, you will never get into the compound. And if you do, once the shelter’s locked down, unless you’re in the military, you’re not getting through the door.” Talking to Vicino, I was surprised at how laid back he seemed for a guy who spends so much time thinking about the end of the world. Call it the confidence of a 6’8”, 300-pound man with enough money to spend millions of dollars building doomsday fortresses big enough to invite friends and family. He is also, of course, a salesman. His intensity mounts as he describes his favorite end-of-world scenarios. But he isn’t the typical redneck, right-wing militia type one often associates with the “doomer” and “prepper” sets. Vicino isn’t the type to stock high-powered assault rifles and spend weekends down at the shooting range. In fact, Vicino didn’t even own a gun until about a year ago.
“I bought a home shotgun,” he told me. “And it’s sitting in the attic, to tell you the truth. I’ve never shot it.” He insists the people who buy spaces in his shelter are like him: multi-ethnic, multinational professionals of all different religions. “Our people have a survivor mentality, but they’re notsurvivalists,” he said. “They’re not hoarding food and guns and ammo and camo gear in their garage or their basement. Instead, they bought Vivos.” There’s a bit of antagonism between Vicino and the survivalists, some of whom have taken to threatening him and threatening to besiege his shelters recently, Vicino said. Kramer, who owns three spaces at the Indiana shelter, noted that there was no love lost. “Survivalists really kinda hate us,” he said. “And we thought we would really appeal to them. But, you know what? They go through so much work… and they don’t like us because people just basically write a check.”
Kramer says he first became interested in buying space with Vivos after his son came home from school one day worried about the end of the Mayan Calendar, when some people believe the world will end, or at least radically change (two days from now, at the time of writing). A few years and a trip to the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza later, and Kramer’s worries have shifted. Like Vicino, he worries more about asteroids, pole shifts, volcanic eruptions, worldwide economic collapse, and nuclear and biological terrorism—one or several of which, they believe, will happen in the next few years. Both pointed to the possibility of a solar storm like the so-called “Carrington Event” in 1859, which shut down telegraph lines around the world; some scientists, they note, say such solar activity is expected to peak next year, shutting down the world’s communication systems, plunging it into chaos. Still, Vivos plans to open the Indiana shelter for the few days surrounding Dec. 21, just in case. Neither Kramer nor Vicino believes that the world will end this week (Kramer and his family intend to stay put at home on Friday). After all, most of the shelters won’t be available until after the Mayan Calendar has ostensibly “ended.” “We’re not doing this for December 21,” Vicino said. “I don’t believe that December 21 is the end of the world. But I do believe we are in “end times”.”
“Due to a large number of requests from families and groups that do not want to share a shelter, and would like to have their own impervious underground complex, Vivos has developed the Vivos 8 Shelter System. This turnkey solution can be installed virtually anywhere in just a few weeks. The Vivos 8 is a fusion of safety, security and survivable comfort for 8 or more people. With unmatched qualities within the shelter industry, the Vivos 8 is like a luxury yacht – yet very affordable. If you have the perfect location, the Vivos 8 is your stealthy and private life-assurance solution for your family. The modular construction can even be expanded to accommodate any size group, scaled up in increments of 8 (8, 16, 24, 32, 64…). Just add food, fuel, water, clothing and your loved ones!”