The world down under

The ASU tunnel system is shown from an access point near the Student Recreation Complex on the Tempe campus. (Damien Maloney | The State Press)

The walls are stone gray, cool and drab, the ceiling low-swooping, cracks within the concrete dancing across the pavement into an endless abyss.

Machinery chugs and pumps, pipes whirr and steam, equipment buzzes and echoes — all of it is methodic and timed as it cools, heats and transmits electricity for the ASU community above.

A rainbow of wires line the walls, metal electrical boxes eating bundles and spitting them out again to continue twisting and turning, climbing the concrete inch by inch, mile by mile.

It’s a sunken, covert world, a system underneath a campus where more than 50,000 people work, teach, study and learn daily.

The underground tunnel system winds, bends and turns across 20,000 linear square feet beneath ASU’s Tempe campus to heat and cool the area, as well as manage telephone lines. The maze is both ancient and dangerous, and Facilities Management workers aren’t the only people who have explored this vast world.

Connecting a campus

The tunnel was first constructed in 1937 to house machinery to chill water for air conditioning and channel steam tunnels for heating campus buildings. Today, the system is still a functioning home to this equipment.

There are certain nerve centers of the system; underneath Old Main, for instance, is the hub for the entire telephone system on the Tempe campus.

While many members of the ASU community may not even know the tunnels exist, they aren’t an uncommon way to run utility lines on college campuses.

“The utilities for a great portion of campus run through that system,” said Polly Pinney, executive director of Facilities Management. “It’s fairly standard to put these facilities underground in areas like [this heavily populated college campus.]”

Upon her arrival at ASU in 1984, Pinney entered a small portion of one tunnel as part of a “this is what we do” introduction.

“I wasn’t in there for very long, and I didn’t want to be,” she said. “It was a very closed-in area, not large at all.”

Ranging from about 6 feet tall in most places to only crawling space in others, the tunnels are only wide enough to walk single file in almost all areas.

“It’s for necessary machinery,” associate director of Facilities Management, Joseph Metzger said. “It’s hot because of high pressure steam lines and cold because of chilled water that services cooling on campus.”

Breaking and entering

Officially, the tunnels are accessed only by Facilities Management and telecommunications workers.

Unofficially, students and others have breached security to explore.
“About two people break in every year,” ASU Police spokesman Cmdr. Jim Hardina said.

The system has perimeter alarms and motion sensors to prevent unauthorized access.

“Whenever someone enters, we hear an alarm,” Hardina said, adding that ASU Police can pinpoint the exact location where someone has entered. “It happens at night most of the time.”

The charge is criminal trespassing and it has been served more than a handful of times in the last 10 years.

Over the years, some have wondered what damage could come to the University from the tunnels — a terrorist attack in the form of a bomb, for example.

Though students have breached the security in many different locations across campus, Hardina said there has never been a security threat of that nature.

“We’re never exactly surprised to find out someone has broken in, but it doesn’t happen too often,” he said.

Metzger said his department is worried about security breaches. There are 57 entrances — some through building basements, others through metal panels or portholes — across the Tempe campus.

“It’s not a place that we want unauthorized people to be in,” Metzger said. “It’s dangerous if you’re unskilled; anyone could get hurt really easily.”

Hazards in the deep

Pinney remembered a male student who penetrated the guarded system a little more than 10 years ago.

“It’s not a safe place to be at all,” she said. “That student harmed [him]self because he wasn’t skilled about the equipment that’s down there.”

Its last additions completed in the early 1990s, the tunnels also lodge dangerous amounts of asbestos.

Facilities Management workers, of whom there are several hundred who have permission to access the tunnels, must wear respirators to protect their health when inside for more than 30 minutes.

“No one spends a majority of their day in the tunnels,” Pinney said.

“If you have the keys to enter, then you have been trained and have a reason to be there.”

Lost in the dark

Mark, a sophomore — who declined to give his last name or major because of the criminal nature of his act — broke into the tunnel system early one November morning with three other ASU students.

“We had memorized the cop’s bike routes and car routes and we were kind of bored that night, so we finally did it,” he said. “We planned this for about a month.”

Mark and his friends entered through the back alley of the ASU Art Museum. They took orange construction cones from a parking lot and placed them around the entrance in case anyone was to walk by and become suspicious.

Then, using various tools, the group was able to pry the heavy steel panel open.

The group climbed down a ladder and met fluorescent lights hung on cement walls, dust packed on every surface and live electrical wires.

“There were little signs that told you what intersection you were at and what building you were underneath,” Mark said. “It was extremely hot and humid. Dust and sand were everywhere and there were gas masks laying all over the floor.”

Mark said he remembers multiple neon signs warning of asbestos during the half hour he spent underground.

He also realized he was unsafe almost immediately after the group suddenly found itself lost in a dark passage and was forced to snap photos with a camera phone for light.

“We saw what looked like a jail cell. [There were] bars separating this little room that was totally empty except for one old metal school chair surrounded by piles and piles of chains,” he said. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in real life. It looked like a scene from [the movie] ‘Saw.’”

After this, the students repeatedly thought they saw the silhouettes of figures moving across one channel and searched for an exit as quickly as possible.

“We just left at the first door we found. It was too weird, we just wanted to get out,” Mark said.

The exit was in the basement of Payne Hall on the west side of campus.
“When we got out we had no idea where we were for a few minutes,” he said. “The security cameras saw us leave, but they never saw us get in.”

The group covertly replaced the steel entrance and returned the cones.

The most interesting thing the student said he discovered in the illegal adventure was a bike.

“It was all burned and torched and left there rusting,” he said. “[There was] graffiti all over it from the class of ’88 and ’86.”

Among names of supposed graduates were several swear words.

“That’s probably some real ASU history right there,” he said.

A rite of passage

Going further back in time, escapades in the tunnels have been seen as somewhat of an urban myth.

A 53-year-old Phoenix man, who declined to give his name because he is still involved with the University, graduated from ASU with several engineering degrees in the late ’70s and early ’80s and entered the tunnels only twice during his time at ASU. But, he heard countless stories about the camouflaged system.

“Parts of it we could stand up easily and other parts we couldn’t even walk,” he said, remembering that he entered about where the bookstore is now, near the central plant.

“We pried our way in with crowbars,” he said. “We just wandered around and then said, ‘This is filthy, let’s get the hell out of here.’”

With his own engineering background, he added that the efficiency of an underground system must save ASU a lot of money.

“There are several miles of piping in there and it’s all doing good stuff,” he said.

Though he didn’t know anyone who experienced it personally, the Phoenician said he heard about fraternity pledges being dropped in naked and blindfolded and told to “make it to the other end.”

“There’s enough dark, ugly cobwebs and roaches down there to make that quite the prank,” he said. “I think they probably did do it.”

Matt Hunt, coordinator for the ASU Interfraternity Council said he has never heard any stories about hazing inside the tunnels from past decades or recently.

“I would certainly hope that never went on,” he said. “It’s not a safe environment for people at all.”

Making the descent

Wednesday morning, Metzger carefully unlocked an out-of-the-way door outside the Student Recreation Complex.

At the bottom of a long flight of stairs, warm cement surrounds a wide variety of rusting pipes, and grumbling machines line the perimeter of the compact room that leads to a tunnel entrance.

The tunnel passage isn’t wide or tall. It is silent, and even soft words echo across its stone walls.

A tiny metal monitor clicks between 21 and 24 hertz, the word “HOT” scrawled in permanent marker on a padded trough nearby.

The gentle whirr of machinery churns and convulses. Among the bleak and desolate gray panels is one splash of color spelled out in smooth black lettering on a neon yellow background: CAUTION ASBESTOS.

Though it seems wildly exciting and inviting, Metzger was careful to stress the safety issue one last time.

“There’s a reason our workers have to wear masks,” he said.

Robert Ott, associate director of ASU Environmental Health and Safety, said he wants to send a message of caution to the student body.

“There are areas in the tunnels that need to be kept confidential because of security reasons,” he said.

Reach the reporter at tessa.muggeridge@asu.edu.