Posted By JEREMY ASHLEY, THE INTELLIGENCER
Don’t tell Justin Martin he’s a hero.
For that matter, don’t call him a guardian angel either.
If you ask the 42-year-old trucker from Prince Edward County, he was just doing what any reasonable person would have on the side of a road just outside of Lovingston, Virginia on May 19 — helping someone who needed a hand.
The Sheriff’s Department and those at the scene of a car fire just outside the small town beg to differ, however.
Martin, who has been a trucker with International Truckload Services (ITS) on Bellevue Drive for the past three years, was on a typical run to the southern United States from the Belleville office when the unexpected happened.
“We do runs down to Greensboro, North Carolina on a weekly basis — that’s a regular run for ITS,” he said.
Most truckers who take the route make an overnight stop outside of Lovingston, about 230 kilometers southwest of Washington, D. C.
He arrived at his usual spot — a parking lot off the main highway and across the road from a grocery store — on May 18.
Martin set his alarm for 8 a. m. to get a good jump on morning traffic and climbed into the sleeping quarters in the rear of his tractor-trailer’s cab.
He didn’t need the audible reminder to get out of bed, as it turned out.
“I just woke up to a lady screaming … with a really shrill voice. It would have been really annoying, but for the fact it did her a lot of good in this particular case because I heard it fairly clearly.”
Peeking through the curtains separating his sleeping quarters from the truck’s cab, Martin saw what all the fuss was about: a BMW had pulled in front of his truck with smoke billowing out of the rear window.
He managed to get on shorts, a T-shirt and a sock before getting out of his truck, armed with the vehicle’s fire extinguisher.
“She was going back into her car to get stuff out … I couldn’t believe it.”
As he jumped out, the woman’s friend pulled up to the scene, adding another level of tension.
“I had to tell her to get away from the car, ‘Don’t worry about your stuff’, I said.”
Martin ensured both women were at a safe distance and sprayed the interior of the BMW’s back seat with the extinguisher.
“She then tells me the fire may have started in the trunk,” he recalled. When he popped the release, flames shot up several feet in the air from the rear compartment.
“Flames were shooting out … and I was like ‘holy geez’. So I hit it really well across the trunk.”
As he was dousing the flames, the women were screaming, he said.
“They were yelling ‘The gas tank is going to explode! The gas tank is going to explode!’, to which I yelled back, ‘You watch too much T.V.!'”
As Nelson County Sheriff’s Cpl. M. J. Pappas pulled up to the scene, Martin spray down the blaze as flames spread to the outside of the car.
With the officer’s help, Martin ensured the fire was out.
“The ladies were saying ‘You appeared out of nowhere … you’re like an angel, you saved my life,'” he said with a laugh.
“But come on, I think they may have been blowing it a bit out of proportion.”
In a letter to ITS head office, Pappas disagrees.
The officer said Martin’s “swift actions possibly saved the life of a woman” in the incident.
Pappas also applauded the trucker’s efforts to keep the woman from the car while battling the blaze.
“Mr. Martin’s quick actions are a credit to himself and to the ITS trucking company,” he wrote. “His professional demeanor is also a credit to all professional drivers.”
Martin said there is an eerie element in the fact the woman — who was traveling on a nearby highway when she noticed the blaze — ended up parked in front of his rig.
“If your car is on fire, pulling over to the side of the road would make the most sense — but her being at a set of lights, hanging a right and going up a hill then hanging a left and pulling in front of a big truck, is bizarre.
“Otherwise, I would have seen it as a burned up beamer on the side of the highway as I made my way to work.”
Martin, who served with the military in Yugoslavia for six years in telecommunications, chalked it up to “validation of existence.”
“Everyone has these little moments, and for me, it validates the reason why I’m not dead, why you’re where you are and doing what you do. And it makes you feel good about it.
“And that’s more of what it was than any kind of heroism. I don’t think that anybody wouldn’t have done the same thing in my situation.”
His military training is part of the reason for his quick-thinking and cool headedness, Martin explained while again playing down his role.
“A situation comes up and I don’t even think, I just react … but I think the action of trying to put something out, anyone with a fire extinguisher could have done the same.”
This isn’t the first time Martin has been commended for service to the public, either.
He was only the third corporal since the Korean war to receive a Prime Minister’s commendation upon his retirement from the military several years ago. But guardian angel?
“Look, the ladies were super freaked out that I was there, but I look at it as I was a person in a position to do the right thing. And that’s all there is to it in my mind.”