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Shadow of abandoned Buckner Building looms over Whittier

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
TMSpencer/AHAI photo

In many ways, Whittier, that dot of a town on the western edge of Prince William Sound, is not for the faint of heart. Even getting to Whittier is ominous: the palpitations start before you get there, driving through that 2-and-a-half-mile-long tunnel, the one carved into a mountain. Signs warn of avalanches.

Eventually, you'll see that light at the end of the tunnel, reminding you of stories about those who have briefly visited the afterlife. When you reach the light, however, it's pretty clear that the angels have ceded -- for the time being, at least -- the town to another kind of army. Perhaps that's what makes Whittier the strangest, most haunted town in Alaska.

Whittier residents live with constant reminders of that other army.

First, and most obvious, there's the Buckner Building, hanging over the town like the ghost of an old warrior. The Buckner Building was named after such a warrior, General Simon Buckner, who died after commanding the defenses of Alaska early in the Second World War. He was then sent to the Pacific theater and died during the closing days of the Battle of Okinawa, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to have been killed at the hands of the enemy during World War II.

Bucker was tough, and so is his building, completed in 1953 at the height of the Cold War. The mammoth, sturdy structure was intended to withstand bombs and keep as many as 1,000 soldiers safe if a Cold War army invaded. It had in it a movie theater, a bowling alley, a jail even. Tunnels led from the building to other parts of the town. It was one of the most spectacular buildings the military ever built in Alaska and the largest at the time. But then, as these things go, the military pulled out and left the building to the spirits, many of whom were skilled at graffiti. One of them likes the movie "The Shining," displaying this fondness by painting the word "Redrum" lovingly on one of its walls.

It's fitting, said Ted Spencer, who lives in San Diego but is curator of the Whittier Museum, one of the best museums in Alaska. Once while exploring the building, he entered a room too dark to tell what it was. Finally, after the sun moved and his eyes adjusted, he realized that he was standing on the stage of a 300-person auditorium. It was, in a word, spooky -- a feeling heightened often by the strange noises in the building: animals scurrying, wind whistling through open windows.

Once Spencer even heard water running down a pipe that was crashing onto the floor. Who turned on the spigot? He still doesn't know.

The spookiness and the noise may have lured some spirits to the comfort of the living: the Begich Towers, commonly known as BTI, is the place where nearly all 160 Whittier residents live today. Stories of bumps in the night, and phantom noises abound. One of the ghosts who inhabit the building is apparently fond of whistling.

Another has a particularly heavy step. Up and down the corridors of the 14-story tower ghosts trudge. One of them is hungry. He or she once rattled around in the kitchen of the city manager Bob Prunella. By all accounts a rational man, he went as far as to reach for his gun before he realized it was just a ghost.

Dyanna Barnes, the executive assistant for the city, said she has some stories she won't talk about because they're so scary. Mostly, though, the ghosts are benign. Residents know that they share the tower with the other side, but they "just live with it."

"They haven't hurt anybody," Barnes said.

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Halloween in 2012.