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The Late, Great South Marion Volunteer Fire Department – 1994 Founder’s Review

Former Chiefs of the South Marion Volunteer Fire Department gathered to reminisce about the “Glory Days” of Marion County’s most advanced volunteer fire department. Standing in front from left are Mac McGregor, Dave Thompson, Norman Ward. Standing on the truck from left are Charles Craven, Major Phil Thompson, John Lake. At the top is Greg McWhite. Former Chiefs who could not be present for the picture were Stanley Ockosz, Jim Lawton, Joe Ghigliotty, and Manny Ghigliotty.

 

By Jim Waldron – Originally published in the 1994 Founder’s Review Magazine

The South Marion Volunteer Fire Department was born into political turmoil in 1971 and died from the same ailment 22 years later.

From the ashes of the old Belleview Fire Department rose the South Marion Volunteers, which over the years developed into a first-rate department, operating with firetrucks, ambulances, rescue units, and their own building, and none of it cost taxpayers a dime in taxes.

It was all financed with donations, memberships, fundraising efforts, and the cooperation and support of the entire South Marion Community.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The SMVFD disappeared forever in 1993 after a dispute with the Marion County Fire Service and a failure to work out an agreement to provide fire service with the City of Belleview.

South Marion Firemen gave away or sold their equipment and treasury and donated their building to the Red Cross, so it could benefit all the people of South Marion who donated the money for the building and department.

South Marion formed in 1971 after the Belleview City Commission ordered the Belleview Fire station to stop answering calls outside the city limits. Five people died in fires the first year Greg McWhite was Chief.

One man was cleaning car parts with gasoline in front of a fireplace when the gasoline exploded. Two others died in car fires. Two more in house fires.

South Marion FD didn’t have a station when the department formed in 1971. Fire trucks were parked at Monroe’s Garage, where Belleview Building Materials is today. The Belleview firefighters inherited the old Belleview fire Station. Big fires the first couple of years were the Green Shelter, a tomato-packing house that was at the intersection of US 301 and CR 42, and the Kiwanis-Legion Building on Lake Weir in Weirsdale.

South Marion was called to back up the City of Ocala when McCroys Store burned on the square. South Marion moved into the Ocala Fire Department to be ready in case there was a fire in another Ocala. Two original members of the department, Warren Brabeau and Jim Deegan, died during the first few years. Both were given “Firemen’s Funerals,” their caskets carried from the church to the cemetery on a fire truck.

Two other firemen died in accidents while members of the department. Paul Utz was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Emerson Walker drowned while swimming in Lake Weir.

 

FIREMATIC GAMES CHAMPIONS South Marion Fire Department’s team displays Championship Trophies after winning the Marion County Firematic Games in 1984. Kneeling in front, from left, John Lake, Mike Crimi, Fred Vyse. Standing in back, from left are Troy Hawkins, Manny Ghigliotty, Phil Thompson, Billy Casteel, Bruce Picard.

 

At one time, the fire trucks were parked close to the home of Fireman Joe Andreotta, near Belleview Elementary School. The siren was on top of a pole at the site, and a telephone was on the pole. When there was a fire, the Sheriff’s Department would set off the siren, and the first fireman to the pole would call the dispatcher for directions to the fire.

He would also write directions to the fire on a blackboard that was attached to the pole and would call a fireman’s wife who would start a telephone chain to alert other Volunteers. The fireman who answered the phone would then crank the engine and head to the fire.

The fire that destroyed much of Six Gun Territory was the largest Phil Thompson remembers during his years as Chief.

“We were on a training exercise, everyone in full gear when the call came in,” Thompson said. “All we had to do was crank the trucks and roll.”

“We were the first volunteer department to arrive, and it was quite a sight,” he remembers. “Blocks of buildings were on fire, and we were riding down the main street with fire all around us.

“We ran out of water, and Charles Craven managed to connect us to a fish pond on the property. We were putting water on the fire, and fish were flying out the hose along with the water.

“They estimated later that having the volunteer departments on the scene saved about $1.5 million in property.”

Firemen meet a lot of confused people. Dave Thompson recalled a wreck on I-75. When he arrived, he found that a brand new motorhome had rolled over and was upside down. The owner was shaken but unhurt. Thompson asked what happened, and the man said he wasn’t sure.

He told Thompson he had put the motorhome on automatic control, then left the driver’s seat and went to the back of the motorhome to make himself a sandwich, and he didn’t see what happened when the home rolled over.

South Marion was the first department in the county to have a Junior Firefighters Program, and it turned out a number of success stories.

Fred Vyse began as a junior fireman, took the first responder class, then became an EMT, then a paramedic, then snorkel diving, then diver rescue, and is now a Marion County Deputy Sheriff.

Mike Crimi went from a junior fireman to an EMT and is now a Physician’s Assistant.

In October 1980, on a Wednesday morning, a tornado struck the Sunlight Mobile Home Sales Lot on US 441 (where Publix is now located). When South Marion firemen arrived, the sky was black as midnight, and there was a hard, driving rainstorm.

They began looking through the wreckage for survivors and heard a woman buried in the wreckage of the sales office. When they reached her, she was pinned down by a soft drink machine and called to the firemen she was covered in blood. Firemen enlisted the help of Florida Power to lift the drink machine off with a crane. Once freed and in the light, she discovered she was covered by sticky Coke, not blood.

PAINTING THE STATIONVolunteer Firemen are all smiles while spending a Saturday painting the new Fire Station in 1974. From left: Jon Tahlier, Stan Ockosz, Joe Andreotta, John Romanski, Robert Gazda, Gene Brown, and Marty Brabeau.

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