The ghost of Fire Station 1
by Nick Stubbs
Ghosts? There's no such thing I reminded myself as I set off for the old firehouse on Florida Keys Avenue, where legend has it a ghostly apparition shares residence with MacDill's emergency responders.
I told myself I would try to keep an open mind as I walked up to the front door of the building, where I hoped to find Chief Ralph Espinosa, who according to my sources knew all about the alleged ghost who shared quarters with the firefighters.
The glass door of the firehouse was locked when I tugged on the handle. Shading my eyes, I pressed my face to the glass to look inside. To my horror, there on the floor was the twisted body of an Airman in battle dress uniform.
We don't print profanity in the Thunderbolt, so I will not recount what I said out loud to myself as I jerked back from the door, but suffice it to say it was an entirely appropriate response. So was what I called myself a couple of seconds later when I realized I had just seen a training dummy left on the floor.
With a deep breath I trudged through the adjoining bay doors, slipping by the hulking fire trucks to find someone alive. Upstairs, Chief Espinosa was hard at work at his computer.
"I'm looking for the firehouse ghost," I said. "What can you tell me?"
The chief leaned back in his swiveling chair, his fingers tightly locked together behind his head. He clearly had something to say. I could see it building like pressure in the heavy canvas fire hoses he was expertly trained to handle.
"I can't really say what it is, but there is something here that is unexplained," the chief said. "But if you want to know what we've heard and seen, I can tell you."
The chief, by all accounts a rational man not prone to exaggeration, went on to tell a hair-raising tale that I later would find was backed up by others in the Fire Department.
There have been lots of strange occurrences, the chief said, but none more so than the physically fit and strapping young Airmen and firefighters left powerless by an invisible force some swear is the firehouse ghost.
The chief explained that in the black of night, every so often and always in the same bunk house, ghostly apparitions grab hold of sleeping firefighters, pinning them to their bed and holding them down. No matter how hard they struggle they cannot overcome the invisible force. Often times it was when firefighters were jarred awake by an alarm and were trying to get up to respond to the call.
Then there are unexplained noises in the darkness; sheets mysteriously fly off beds and land on the floor and pantry cabinets open by themselves, each ajar precisely to the same degree. Water faucets turn themselves on and the refrigerator door opens when no one is around.
"If people don't believe in ghosts when they come here, it doesn't take too long before they do," said Chief Espinosa. "There's something here that can't be explained; I think everyone (here) has experienced some type of encounter or strange happening."
The chief said Fire Station 1 is either the oldest or second oldest building on base.
"Then there is the rumor that the tunnel under the firehouse is where the ghost comes from," said the chief.
"Whoa, wait a metaphysical second here," I said. "What tunnel?"
The chief explained the tunnel is flooded and no one goes down there and he doesn't know much about it.
"Note to self," I thought. "Investigate for possible story on secret tunnel."
From there it was off to the un-haunted firehouse, over on the flightline.
Frank Bonilla, a firefighter there, used to bunk at Station 1. He thinks he may have seen the ghost.
One night, he was in the upper floor bunkhouse at the southwest corner of Station 1, when he caught a glimpse of something misty out of the corner of his eye. He told himself to ignore it but eventually had to recognize that something strange was going on.
"I stood up and looked at it and said 'what the heck is this?' but then it vanished," said Mr. Bonilla, describing the mist as somewhat human in shape, with a defined head.
The firefighter says he's skeptical of things supernatural but added too many odd things happened in his time at Station 1.
He would get up at night to use the restroom and find the refrigerator door open. After closing it, he would find it open again on his way back. He's heard footsteps on the stairs when no one was there and frequently had the feeling someone or something was watching him. He once spoke to a firefighter who had the experience of being pinned to the bed.
So has Sean Shillato, a firefighter at the station since 1996, remembers five accounts of such incidents with different people. In one case he spoke to the firefighter involved.
"He said it was like someone was sitting on his chest and he couldn't move and could barely breathe," Mr. Shillato recalled. "I know he was so scared after that he would only sleep in the day room."
What's strange, said Mr. Shillato, is that the same thing happened to several other firefighters, usually about 18 months apart. It always was in the same bunk area and none of those who experienced it had previous knowledge of the phenomenon. Each gave startlingly identical accounts of how something powerful and unseen was holding them down on their beds.
So if there is a ghost, who is he? I wondered aloud.
Chief Espinosa said he has heard there may have been someone stationed at the firehouse who may have died there but no one has ever researched it to find out.
As for himself, Chief Espinosa has never seen the ghost but while getting up in the night to use the restroom, working his way through the inky blackness, he's felt someone or something following him. Many times the hair on his arms stood up as he felt a nearby presence.
"I can't say it's a ghost but I can tell you there is something," said the chief. "You can feel it watching you sometimes."
The chief said many times he has closed the refrigerator and chewed out the men for leaving it open, only to have them protest that none of them were in the kitchen. Early one morning he went into the kitchen to find every pantry door open exactly the same amount and everyone there claimed they had nothing to do with it. He's turned off running faucets, only to find them running again later.
Chief Espinosa said he has never had the feeling that the presence is dangerous or means any harm.
"Some believe it's just an Airman who, for whatever reason, is bound here or just feels comfortable hanging around here," the chief said.
But many living Airmen over the years have been anything but comfortable in Fire Station 1.
This whole thing was getting a little creepy. I felt I needed a shot of good ol' skepticism so Chief Espinosa said I should see Chief John Warhul.
"BS," said Chief Warhul, who between 1973 and 1978 slept at Station 1. He doesn't believe in ghosts and never experienced anything out of the ordinary at Station 1, though he recognizes that some do believe. He's heard the stories of men being pinned down "as if a piece of Plexiglass were on top of them," but the only real instance of a firefighter not being able to get up that he knows of was the one he and a couple of other guys duct-taped to his bunk as a joke.
But while the chief makes light of the legend, others are more serious.
"I had an assistant chief come back from being away for a while and when he got back he asked where he would be bunking," recalled Chief Warhul. "I told him Station 1 and he went white."
The chief went on to say the ghost legend is nothing more than "overactive imaginations" and exaggerated stories.
I asked Mr. Bonilla to explain the chief's doubt.
"He didn't see what I saw," he said.
So just what of this persistent MacDill legend? I'm not sure but this is Halloween weekend and while I have plans to be in many places, the bunkhouse on the southwest corner of Station 1 is not on the itinerary.