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By KEITH MORELLI AND JOSH POLTILOVE
The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA - Michael Bellamy has a fascination with fire engines and visited fire stations to help wash the trucks and get to know the equipment, a Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office spokesman said.
Over the weekend, the 17-year-old hatched a plan to get behind the wheel of a $500,000 fire engine at Station 7 on Bloomingdale Avenue and drive three miles to Progress Village with lights flashing and sirens blaring, sheriff’s spokesman J.D. Callaway said.
The joy ride ended at a construction site near Causeway Boulevard and 86th Street when the truck got stuck in sand. On Monday, Bellamy was charged with stealing the truck and making a false 911 call.
“He said he did it just to have fun,” Callaway said.
The stolen truck is considered a reserve engine and pressed into service when frontline engines are in the shop.
Firefighters at the Bloomingdale station said they thought they had gotten a telephone call Saturday from Emergency One, the engine’s Ocala-based manufacturer.
The caller said repair work was being done on a different truck at another fire station and that the reserve engine was needed at that other station. The caller said a company representative would be by to get the truck, and if the crew left on a call to leave the reserve truck out back unlocked, Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley said.
Saturday night the crew responded to a 911 call and when they returned, the engine was gone.
They thought nothing of it, Yeakley said, believing it was at the other station. The theft wasn’t realized until Monday morning when a construction worker called to report the abandoned vehicle at the construction site.
Investigators said the teen had placed both the Emergency One call to trick the firefighters into leaving the truck in the parking lot and the 911 call to get them out of the station.
With only one engine and a crew of three, everybody on the Station 7 crew responds to calls, leaving nobody at the station, Yeakley said. The station is locked, but the engine was left behind the station. It was unlocked.
Even so, starting a fire engine isn’t that simple. There are no keys.
“There are about a half-dozen functions you have to go through to get the thing running,” Yeakley said. It took someone who knew the workings of fire engines to even start it, he said.
Bellamy, who lives near Progress Village, told deputies a friend was driving the truck when it got stuck in sand. But Callaway said investigators had yet to find a friend.
“We don’t know who he is,” Callaway said. “If he exists, yeah, we want to talk to him.”
The truck was fully operational but did not have all the equipment that in-service engines usually carry. The truck was not damaged. Investigators arranged for the truck to be pulled from the sand and checked for evidence.
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the theft would have drawn only local attention. But since then, federal authorities get involved because terrorists in a stolen emergency vehicle “can go places where firefighters can go and the general public cannot,” Yeakley said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were notified of the theft.
Callaway said the teenager will be taken to a juvenile assessment center.
Meanwhile, the theft has fire rescue officials rethinking procedures.
“We are looking at operational procedures to make sure we are doing all we can to prevent this from happening again,” Yeakley said.
Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 865-1504 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporter Josh Poltilove can be reached at (813) 259-7691.