Welcome to the World's Largest Gold Vault

Just a few blocks from the bustle of Wall Street sits $200 billion in gold.

ByReporter's Notebook By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ <br/> ABC NEWS Business Unit
September 18, 2008, 6:00 PM

Sept. 19, 2008&#151; -- NEW YORK -- Gold. It's one of the oldest and most prized possessions we have. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with it, the Romans traded it and gold is even mentioned as a gift in the Bible.

As stocks plummet and many realize they don't understand how their money is invested, some on Wall Street are turning to gold as a haven.

Who can blame them? Gold is something you can see, hold and fully understand. In the last two days, the price of gold shot up $110 to $892.70 an ounce.

Just a few blocks away from all the turmoil and panic of the stock market sits the world's largest stockpile of gold. Deep under the streets of Manhattan sits more gold than "James Bond" villain Goldfinger could ever imagine.

And I recently got a private tour inside the little-known vault.

Nearly $200 billion worth of gold rests on bedrock five stories underground, 30 feet below the city's subway system, inside the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's vault.

That's more than can be found in Fort Knox.

Very little of it belongs to the U.S. government.

There are roughly 540,000 gold bars belonging to 48 foreign central banks and 12 international organizations such as The International Monetary Fund or The Bank for International Settlement. The United States has about 5 percent of its gold stored there.

Fed officials were very tight-lipped about who owns what gold. Accounts are just identified by number, not name.

The Fed stores the gold for free but depositors pay $1.75 for each bar that is moved.

This vault contains about 25 percent of the world's gold reserves. That's more gold that the entire annual economy of the United Arab Emirates -- home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The majority of gold came to the Fed after World War II as countries sought a safe place to keep their wealth. New York's rise as one of the world's financial capitals also makes it convenient for countries that want to sell their holdings.

An Urban Fortress

From the distance, the Fed's New York building looks half like any other office tower in the financial district and half like a medieval fortress. Windows on the bottom three floors are covered by large, imposing iron bars. Up high is a circular tower. You almost expect to see a knight standing sentry.

Instead, armed guards from the Fed's security force circle the surrounding blocks with large, imposing automatic weapons.

Once inside the building -- there was a thorough security check -- I was told that taking pictures is strictly prohibited. A sign in the lobby warns: "All cameras must be checked. If pictures are taken, the film will be confiscated."

The Fed even forced me to leave a reporter's notebook and briefcase outside the vault. What was I going to do, sneak off with a bar or two? Maybe draw a map and then come back late at night and rob the place?

But forget all the guns, cameras and thick walls. The real security is the vault.

The gold vault -- about half the size of a football field -- was built and lowered into New York's bedrock in 1921 before the building was completed in 1924. Solid rock surrounds it on all sides.

There is only one way in or out -- through a narrow, 10-foot passageway cut into a 90-ton steel cylinder that sits within a giant steel-and-concrete frame. The cylinder can actually be lowered three-eighths of an inch to create an airtight and watertight seal. Large bolts then get inserted into the cylinder, locking it into place. Timers prevent it from being opened again until the next business day.

Sounds like the most modern and sophisticated system, right? Not really. This low-tech system actually dates back to the vault's creation and works through power and computer outages.

The Federal Reserve's armed guards even have their own firing range on site to practice.

Nobody has ever tried to rob the vault, although the third "Die Hard" movie was based around a massive robbery of it.

Besides all the security, robbing the place would be a logistical nightmare.

Each bar weighs 28 pounds, but because of the density of the bars, they feel closer to 45 pounds. Workers must wear special metal covers over their shoes in case a bar falls on their feet. In one corner of the vault, the concrete floor is dented where some gold bars were once dropped.

When some workers passed by me, moving a couple million dollars' worth of bars, I made sure to stand back. I like my toes.

Not everything at the vault is super secret. In fact, 180 tourists a day are led through the vault on free guided tours. You have to listen to a speech about monetary policy but then you get to see the gold. But book far in advance, the tours are almost always at capacity.

And unfortunately, you don't get to take a little bit of gold home with you.

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