Not-So-Average Joe

updated 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, is a tough place to be a firefighter. With a population of 500,000, the sprawling factory and farming town employs just 80 men and boys—10 per shift—to battle 50 blazes a week. Thanks to a long drought, hydrants often run dry. And the firehouse itself—with its peeling paint, crumbling concrete awning and sun-bleached emergency vehicles—looks like a fire hazard.

But the Obregón fire department has a secret weapon: an American fire-fighter named Joe Martinez. On a recent Sunday morning, the beefy 39-year-old patrols the halls of an abandoned school building as 20 bomberos practice rope-rescue techniques. He checks a novice's harness, then watches with a proud grin as the young man's colleagues lower him three stories to the street. For the past five years Martinez has traveled to Obregón every few months from his home in Santa Maria, Calif., 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles, bringing advanced training and equipment to a department that once possessed little of either. He has delivered 5,000 ft. of hose; 100 turnout jackets, helmets and pairs of boots; 15 sets of breathing apparatus; and smoke alarms for Obregón's schools—all, like today's lessons, free of charge. "Since Joe arrived," says Oscar Coronel, 48, a firefighter from age 10, "this has become a better, safer place to work."

Martinez's mission was launched by love—and tragedy. He was expecting neither in December 1997, when a pal invited him to a New Year's Eve party in Obregón. The friend thought Martinez might like to meet his wife's cousin, engineering student Ana Luisa Barreras. One look at her picture convinced Martinez: This was a fiesta he couldn't miss. A third-generation Mexican-American (one of five children of John, 79, a retired lumber worker, and Frances, 75, a homemaker), he spoke no Spanish, and Ana's English was little better. Still, aided by a dictionary, they struck up a flirtation. Soon the pair were flying back and forth for visits and talking marriage. "My friends all said, 'You won the Lotto with this guy,' " recalls Ana, now 28 and a fulltime mom to Alec, 3.

On one trip, in February 1999, Martinez dropped by the main firehouse, where he heard a horrific story: Two firemen in their 20s—one the father of a new baby—had recently perished in a warehouse blaze. The pair had run out of oxygen because their tanks lacked low-air alarms. They might have been saved had they worn personal alarm locators (PALs), which beep when a firefighter stops moving for too long. But such devices, standard in the U.S., are rare in Mexico. "Firemen everywhere are one big family," says ex-chief Juan Ernesto de Acha. "Joe took our loss personally." Recalls Martinez, who followed older brother John Jr. into the field in 1987: "I couldn't believe these guys had died. They didn't have some simple, basic equipment that we take for granted up here."

He decided to help them catch up. Back in the States, Martinez persuaded his department to part with five PALs and flew them to Obregón. Then, in April 1999, he set out for his wedding in a pickup piled high with gear he had gathered from several California departments. When he arrived in Obregón, grateful firefighters drove him and Ana to the church in one of their engines. After the ceremony, the couple were whisked off to the reception at a hotel—where lodgers, hearing the sirens, fled in their pajamas.

In December 2001, after taking time off for fatherhood, Martinez loaded up his truck again. But he was stymied at customs and wound up leaving the equipment at a firehouse in Arizona, to be retrieved by a team from Obregón. Resolving to change tactics, he persuaded the Woodland Hills, Calif., Rotary Club—which had donated fire vehicles to Obregón through the club's sister-cities program—to pay his airfare for training missions. He has been back three times since. "We feel a deep sense of brotherhood with Joe," says firefighter Carlos Amin Medrano, 25, whose own older brother Jesús was one of the pair whose deaths moved Martinez to action. "Words can't express our thankfulness."

On his most recent visit, Martinez brings along two California roperescue instructors, Phil Hanon and Mark Cameron, to show the bomberos how to climb the grain elevators and industrial plants that dot the city. "They're quick learners," says Hanon of his students, who hoist a metal stretcher up the side of the city's baseball stadium and lower a volunteer "victim"—a glamorous local TV reporter—from a light tower, cheering lustily when she lands.

On the last evening the group repairs to the firehouse courtyard for barbecued pork tacos and a graduation ceremony. There is wild applause as the firefighters grab their certificates from chief Sergio Martinez. But the biggest noise comes when the chief thanks the fireman from Santa Maria for his "valuable help and the promise of more." As the crowd chants, "Joe! Joe! Joe!" their hero blushes crimson. "Kind of makes you want to cry," he says, and despite his smile, he looks like he might mean it.

Kenneth Miller in Ciudad Obregón

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