Last year, when we were brainstorming ideas about ghost stories in Cape Girardeau, we kept talking about how great it would be to see if there are any hauntings in Cairo, Illinois. With Cairo’s tragic history and crumbling urban environment, the town seems like a natural for a good ghost story.
Fortunately, I (Joel) was approached last fall by Brandon Manker, a firefighter in Cairo’s Fire Department.
Manker is a skeptic at heart. But he swears that things happen each and every night in the fire station. Things nobody could explain … unusual occurrences that were independently corroborated by other fire fighters.
And they center on the dormitory.
Manker started with the fire department in 1995, when he was just 17 years old. It’s no secret that employment opportunities are few and far between in Cairo. High school students often start as Junior Fire Fighters just to earn a few bucks. Many become paid on-call firefighters after graduation, like Manker.
Ghosts were never on his radar when she started at the fire station in the mid 1990s.
“I grew up as a child of the 80s,” Manker says. “The fad was the UFO thing. I was actually terrified of aliens. That was the thing. Ghosts just never crossed my mind.”
During his first couple of years, Manker doesn’t recall any sort of paranormal activity. But after the all-male fire fighter squad began sharing their dormitory space with a paramedic team that included a few females, things began to get a little weird.
“And it all just started as just noises,” he recalls. “Strange noises that were just a diffuse noise that you had no idea … you couldn’t really focus anything on the noise. But the frequency, the intensity just started kicking in. More and more and more. It became more aggressive. It was something obviously, like somebody wanting to make their presence known.”
It just seemed like somebody stomping around on the roof of the dormitory. A storage area is located directly above the sleeping area, accessed only by a ladder in the bay where the fire trucks are parked. The fire fighters like to call this storage area “the mezzanine,” and the mysterious noises were soon attributed to Mezzanine Man.
They would run to investigate the noises, but as soon as a fire fighter would climb the ladder to the mezzanine, the sounds would disappear from the dorm.
At first, the noises seemed to be most prevalent when a certain female paramedic stayed in the dormitory. Later, the thumping would occur when at least two individuals were staying the night. After a while, there would be noises in the dorm each and every night, no matter who was present.
“You know, being skeptical and having some building construction knowledge and some physics knowledge, I wanted to believe that this was the building contracting,” he told us. “This is concrete. Concrete floors, block walls. Steel trusses upstairs, a steel roof upstairs. Maybe the temperature variations were causing this building to expand and contract or whatever it was doing at the time. But really there is no correlation to why it was going on, why it was going on at a specific time.”
Typically, Mezzanine Man is most active between 11 PM and 4 AM. And nobody can really figure out why. The dormitory is long, windowless, and drab, with half a dozen beds separated by dividers. A metal door stands between the dorm and a locker room; a row of dim red lights run the length of the wall. But no sunlight ever enters this dull space. Without a clock, there’s no way to tell whether it’s day or night.
The noises have changed over the years. While Manker says that it used to be diffuse and hard to pinpoint, now the noises seem to be targeted at individuals. Furthermore, the noise will respond when asked.
“The noise is really directed at you. Like it would be over on this wall, on this ceiling directly over you, even directly under you. Like I could take this weight here and beat it on this poured concrete floor and it is that distinct and that loud and there are times that you can feel vibrations.”
But Mezzanine Man’s noise is only half the story, as there are lots of other things … scarier things … that happen in the firehouse. We’ll get to them later. What’s unsettling about the noise is its frequency. It happens every night … every single night … between 11 and 4. Veteran fire fighters, new fire fighters, anybody. They all hear the noises. And sometimes, they interact with it.
“You can take something and beat on the walls … three knocks … and you get a three knock response back. Or you can even ask for a number of knocks and we’ve been able to get a number. ‘Hey, will you you knock twice for us?’ and we’ve got it. We’ve actually asked for noise to be directed, ‘Beat on this wall,’ BOOM BOOM, and you can hear something distinctly like a hammer TAP TAP TAP right now distinctly into that part of the wall. And we’ve got that. And simply we’ve asked, ‘Hey, I wanna sleep. We know, we’re acknowledging you. Hey, let us sleep. And everything had stopped.”
Mezzanine Man is an industrious ghost. He works hard. When we’re talking about this noise, it’s not a discreet ra-tat-tat or little bump. According firefighter Tronzo (tor-AHN-zoh) Graham, it’s a thundering cacophony of metal on metal.
“Sledgehammers,” Tronzo says. “I mean physically taking sledgehammers and hitting up on top of the mezzanine is what you’re hearing. And for me to get up and actually run out there and no one’s up there. You get up there and nothing seems to be disturbed, you know no one could have physically jumped down ran out before you got there because you would have heard the door open as they left. It had to have been a ghost. There’s no doubt in my mind. No doubt.”
There are plenty buildings in Cairo that would make good candidates for hauntings. Let’s be honest … the city is falling apart. Decay is everywhere. Every nook and cranny seems to hold some hidden secret. Entire blocks are vacant, once-majestic mansions are left unattended. The city’s position at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, its Civil War history, the Civil Rights struggle, and the town’s abandonment would seem to be great fodder for ghost stories.
Cairo’s grand architecture, now in ruins, reminds us of our own mortality.
That said, the Cairo fire station may be the most non-descript building in town. Built in the 1970s, it sits shyly across the street from the old Customs House and Courthouse. In the shadows of these historic titans, it is unlikely that visitors would even notice the fire station. It’s on ground that was once a train depot, where freight was loaded and unloaded for destinations out west. Mezzanine Man’s origin, according Tronzo Graham, may be tied to the locomotives that once stopped at this long forgotten rail yard:
“Because a lot of time it would be noises of somebody actually out working. And also I’ve heard of people hearing train cars coupling. I’ve never actually heard that myself. But with the noises, it’s like people actually working. And a lot of times I talk back to the ghost and let him know, ‘OK, I hear you out there. Continue doing what you’re doing and I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing because I’m not working tonight.’ I go on doing what I’m doing and they on doing what they’re doing. That’s pretty much what I try to put it off on.”
Dylan Calvert is one of the younger members of the fire department. He’s a big kid, with a pleasant demeanor. Like Brandon Manker, he didn’t think twice about ghosts before joining the squad. He was introduced to Mezzanine Man’s noisy midnight show his first time bunking in the dorm. Since then, he’s had even closer encounters with the fire station’s unruly presence.
“I’ve had everything from someone tugging at my foot or sheets being tightened up a little bit, sheet being pulled, covers being pulled,” Calvert says. “I’ve heard people running through here with the doors being locked. There’s only me and one other person here and I get up and that person is dead asleep. I’ve actually seen a shadow with these red lights in the ceiling. I’ve actually seen a shadow standing at the foot of my bed for a second and then just dart off to the side. People stomping around upstairs up in the storage area. I’ve had enough to where I don’t like being back in this area by myself.”
Like his friend Brandon Manker, Calvert likes to think of himself as a skeptic. He’s not the type of guy to jump to conclusions over any old bump in the night, or immediately buy in to claims of paranormal activity. “If someone tells me their house is haunted,” he says, “I don’t take their word for it. I want to see proof. You have to have hard evidence. There are a lot of places I’ve been to here in Cairo, the fire station included, that hard evidence is an understatement.”
One time, after Calvert had surgery on a broken ankle, he came down to spend the night at the fire station. He couldn’t do anything productive with a walking cast on his foot, but he wanted to hang out with his friends and spend the night. He was lying in the third bed, on his back…“And all of a sudden I feel something just wrap around the middle section of my foot and kind of tug a little bit. Not trying to hurt me or anything, but I just had surgery so it hurt. I jumped up. I was weirded out. It was time to go. I slept in the recliner in there. That’s happened to me several other times.”
The dormitory ceiling has several red lights that run along the wall. Most of the fire fighters found little use for the lights, but one night Dylan Calvert decided to keep them on just in case he needed to get up for something.
“Well, I’m sitting there and all of a sudden I saw the light, “ he recalls. “I had it as low as I could see. All of sudden it went full blast, I mean, instantly. Over the next thirty minutes or so it just kept going back and forth, fading in and out. I blamed Brandon of standing up and doing it. He was passed out. So yeah, those red lights haven’t been on since then.”
Despite the banging on the walls, the stomping in the mezzanine, the industrious clamor of hammers, the ankle tugs, and the shadows, Calvert says he doesn’t feel threatened by the eerie presence in the fire station.
“[I’ve been] a little weirded-out. A little scared sometimes. I think that just comes with the nerves. But I’ve never felt threatened,” he says.
According to Calvert, Mezzanine Man also plays favorites. There are certain individuals he favors, a few who he really likes to mess with. Despite all of his experiences, Calvert claims he receives the generic, standard issue treatment.
“Everybody but me has had an experience where they’ve been touched. Everybody but me. Everybody. And it’s typically the foot being grabbed. Some people have actually been sat on, the sheets drawn over them. That’s never occurred to me.”
Tronzo Graham wishes he were lucky enough to not have experienced those things. He’s been on the fire department for six years and hasn’t slept the dorm for five. He now bunks on the sofa in the living quarters. Like the other fire fighters, Graham never really paid much attention to ghosts or things like that before joining the department. But as soon as he started overnight shifts, he heard the noise and saw the shadows and the fluttering red lights. Then the experiences became a little too close, he says.
“I had a few times where I woke up to somebody actually holding me down in the bed where I actually could not move. [It didn’t seem] like he was actually trying to physically harm me, I just couldn’t move. And that actually happened a couple of times. But I never made mention of it because I never wanted everybody to think I was crazy or anything, until one day it was a few of us firefighters sitting in the living quarters. A fellow firefighter who has gone on to another fire department now brought up the one night when it had to him. And once it happened to him, it opened up the door where I could actually say, ‘You know that happened to me, too.’”
The Cairo firefighters tend to agree that Mezzanine Man likes to pick on Graham. He seems to be at the receiving end of more than his fair share of ghostly pranks. And just recently, one of the most bizarre events took place on Tronzo’s watch.
The dormitory is ground zero for most of the fire station’s paranormal activity. But that doesn’t mean that Mezzanine Man won’t occasionally branch out, and while the pounding of sledgehammers may be his preferred medium, he’ll occasionally embrace new technology.
It was about 3 a.m., and Tronzo Graham was asleep in his customary location on the living quarters recliner when his cell phone went off. It was a text message from his wife, saying that she had met his grandmother.
“My grandma has been dead now about five years,” he tells us. “Me and my wife have only been married about a year; she’s never met my grandmother. As soon as I read the text, the TV in the dining area came on by itself, which had never happened since we’ve had that TV. So I just got up and turned off the TV and went back to the recliner and put it out of my mind. When I got home that morning, I asked [my wife] what she meant. She said, ‘Well, I met your grandmother in a dream.’ And she began to describe different things, things that she should not have known.”
A few years ago, when the ambulance team still bunked at the firehouse, Manker recalls that an Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, was staying the night. A 13-year old Boy Scout named Scott was volunteering that night, as well. It was late at night, and Manker and two other fire fighters were in the lounge after the EMT and Scott had gone to sleep.
Manker and some of his friends tried to make contact with the supernatural presence in the firehouse by a technique called dousing, which is similar to water witching. Just interchange water with spirits. Manker would hold the rods out in front of him, and other people would ask the presence yes-or-no questions about their grandparents or other things like that. “And they would be doing control questions without me,” Manker says. “I wasn’t even in control of this. So there would be no way for me to know this and no doubt in my mind that there was something interacting with me. I could actually feel a physical presence on the end of these rods.”
Their divining sessions with the Mezzanine Man became something of a sensation in Cairo. Friends, girlfriends, wives, and family would all come to watch and ask questions to the firehouse’s resident spirit.
“This became kind of an obsession,” Manker continues, “to where we would have upwards of ten people coming in at a time, almost as if people were coming to a psychic, coming to us and trying this on their own. It was so frightening and terrifying. We sat down and thought about this for a while that this is really no different than a Ouija board. You don’t talk to anybody that’s had an experience with a Ouija board. They’ve just had the hell scared out of them and they will never back to them again. Or they can always tell someone a story about this. Well we can do the same thing with the dousing rods.
“There was a time during a dousing session that there were answers that I really didn’t like. It sounded like pure evil. I’d be dousing like this and the rods [were] coming around and physically slapping me. I don’t think anybody could have physically…pushed the rods around and then slapped me on the neck as hard. And the rods just completely moved way out of control. I’d feel a sudden intense cold shock go through them, or just intense heat where I couldn’t hold them anymore…We don’t do the dousing sessions anymore.”
The fire fighters have since given up trying to communicate with the spirits in the fire house. They’ve moved on at this point. They moved on, it turns out, to acceptance. To adapting. To recognizing that they may have to share their space with someone or something that can be a little rambunctious, but pretty harmless when left alone. Tronzo Graham doesn’t even think of the building as haunted. If it were haunted, that means the Mezzanine Man would be out to cause them some harm.
“When I think of it,” Graham says, “I think of it as an extra guy being here to work my shift with me. Because he never comes to haunt me. I think just think of it as an extra person…or two or three extra people.”
Despite their eerie experiences, Graham says they’ve managed to coexist with Mezzanine Man: “We acknowledge that he’s there. He acknowledges that we’re here. It’s pretty much a silent agreement of ‘you do what you’re doing and I’ll do what I’m doing.’”