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MacDill's Firehouse 1 Ghost
Firehouse 1 is one of the oldest buildings on base and some say boast a ghostly figure. (Courtesy Photo)
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The legend of the Fire Station 1 ghost

Posted 10/30/2008   Updated 10/30/2008 Email story   Print story


by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt editor

10/30/2008 - MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla -- MacDill's firefighters are used to being startled. It's just the nature of the emergency responder business to be jolted from a dead-sound sleep into the world of the living by an alarm bell.
But there is nothing natural about being jolted by a visit from the dead, something some say happens from time to time at MacDill's Fire Station 1.
The station, on Florida Keys Avenue, is one of the oldest buildings on base, and though remodeled and modernized over the years, it is the same basic structure it was 60 years ago when MacDill was born. And facing the bay doors of the firehouse, one can gaze up to the southwest corner of the building, the old southwest bunkhouse, where some who have slept and worked in Fire Station 1 say is ground zero for some horrific happenings.
Ghosts, some may say, even on All Hallows Eve, are a figment of the overactive imagination - the stuff of irrational minds. But Chief Ralph Espinosa is anything but an irrational person. A rock-solid fire veteran who spends his days carrying out the mission of protecting the base from very real disasters, he's had a couple of brushes with what most people would classify as the "unreal."
"If people don't believe in ghosts when they come here, it doesn't take too long before they do," he said back before he transferred out of Fire Station 1. "There is something here that can't be explained."
He went on to note not everyone has experienced anything strange at Fire Station 1.
But some have.
Frank Bonilla, a MacDill firefighter, used to bunk in Fire Station 1. He told a tale of bumping into the ghost of Fire Station 1.
One night, while at the station, he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. It was misty and misshapen human figure. He tried to ignore it, only to realize something strange was happening.
"I stood up and looked at it and said 'what the heck is this?' but then it vanished," said Mr. Bonilla.
He said the shape was humanlike and had a defined head. He also told of getting up at night and finding the refrigerator door open. He would close it, and upon passing by on the way back to his bunk, seeing it open again. A hungry ghost?
He reported hearing footsteps when no one was there, and he tells of having the feeling of being watched during his time at Fire Station 1. He's lucky that's all he experienced.
Mr. Bonilla tells a story of a firefighter he once spoke with who had the terrifying experience of being pinned to his bunk by an unseen force.
In 2004, Sean Shillato, a firefighter at Station 1 beginning in 1996, recalled five accounts of firefighters being pinned down in bed. He spoke to one of them.
"He said it was like someone was sitting on his chest and he couldn't move, and could barley breathe," Mr. Shillato recalled. "I know he was so scared after that he would only sleep in the day room."
He went on to say that usually about 18 months apart, the instances of being pinned down would be repeated, with different firefighters, none of whom, he said, had prior knowledge of such phenomenon. Each gave nearly identical accounts of how something very powerful and unseen held them firmly to their beds.
But if there is a ghost, whose ghost could it be?
No one knows, but Chief Espinosa in a previous interview said there have been stories about someone once stationed at the firehouse who died. But no one has ever found out for sure.
Bunkhouse ghost? Just plain bunk, says John Warhul, MacDill's head fire chief with 35 years on the job at MacDill. In all those years he's never seen, heard or otherwise experienced a ghost in Fire Station 1, and he doesn't believe anyone else has.
"I don't believe in ghosts and not that one (the Fire Station 1 ghost) in particular," he said Monday, muttering "active imaginations."
Between 1973 and 1978, he slept at Fire Station 1. He's heard all the stories, and recalled men reporting being pinned to their beds as if a "piece of Plexiglass were on top of them." He's said the only story of a firefighter not being able to get out of bed that he believes is the horrific tale of a couple of guys who duct-taped one of the guys to his bed as a practical joke.
But the ghost is not a joke to everyone. In 2004 Chief Warhul told the story of an assistant chief who came back to MacDill after being away for a while discovering where he was assigned to bunk."
"I told him Station 1 and he went white," recalled Chief Warhul.
While the legend of the firehouse ghost has a long history at MacDill, Chief Espinosa said he hasn't heard of any recent sightings.
"I haven't really heard too much the past couple of years," he said this week. "I thought maybe the ghost would move to the new fire station once it was completed, because it was so much nicer, but all's been quiet here (the new station)."
And all is expected to be quiet at Fire Station 1 this Halloween, the chief said, who opined that the renovation of the old building might have exorcised the ghost.
Will he stop by Fire Station 1 around midnight to make sure?
No, Chief Espinosa said. He likes it just fine at the new, decidedly un-haunted airfield fire station.

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