08/07/2014 12:45PM

Hovdey: Thanks for a random act of heroism

Jay Hovdey
Del Mar labor foreman David Martinez pulled a 7-year-old boy from a burning RV near the track Wednesday morning.

Aleksei Avila, named for a gold medal Olympian from Belarus, sat on the steps of a neighbor’s RV in his shorts, a T-shirt, and his stockinged feet. A silver sticker in the shape of a paramedic’s badge was displayed prominently on his shirt. Two hours earlier, he had been pulled through the side window of his family’s burning trailer home by a Del Mar employee, and now Aleksei was taking a rueful inventory of his losses.

“I had 30 games on my DS,” Aleksei said. “And those were my lucky shoes. I won with those in the hippity-hop race here six times. The last time I won was by, like, ten yards.”

Aleksei is seven, and now he’ll be eight, thanks to the fact that for no apparent reason Del Mar labor foreman David Martinez decided to take the long way around from the grandstand side of the track at a quarter to six Wednesday morning to check on one of his maintenance crews in the stable area. The drive took him past the row of RVs that park each summer behind the fairgrounds pavilions, hard by the waters of the San Dieguito River as it empties into the Pacific Ocean at Del Mar’s Dog Beach.

“I smelled smoke first, then when I got around the turn I saw flames,” Martinez said. “I parked and honked my horn trying to wake people up, then jumped out of my truck and went to the burning trailer and pounded on the door. As I opened the door the flames were across the ceiling. All I could hear was a little child’s voice. I tried to crawl in but couldn’t. So I went to the window and opened it, and luckily he was right there, curled up.”

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The Del Mar Fire Department is located at the south entrance of the fairgrounds, barely a quarter of a mile from the scene. Firefighters quelled the trailer blaze before it could spread any farther than the outside wall of the RV next door.

Manny Avila, Aleksei’s father, arrived moments after Martinez pulled the boy from the trailer. He had been away at work for barely half an hour, exercising a horse at 5:30. A respected member of the Southern California racing scene, Avila handled such horses as Bayakoa, Paseana, and Tight Spot for Ron McAnally before going to work for Bob Baffert. Afternoons, Avila is a jocks’ room valet, tending to a corner this summer that includes Edwin Maldonado, Kent Desormeaux, and Stewart Elliott.

“I was just coming back to check on Aleksei,” Avila said two hours later, his face still drawn with the horror of what might have been. “His mother had to go home to Azusa early this week with our daughter, who is a teacher’s aide, and their school registration was starting. I come back here when we have a break, and our friends on both sides always know when he is there.”

Avila reached down to brush a trace of sleep from Aleksei’s eye.

“How are you feeling?” asked his father.

“Okay,” the boy said. “Scared. I couldn’t jump out the window because it was a hard landing and I could have got hurt. I just stayed calm and started yelling, and the man came.”

“You did the right thing,” his father said.

“I’m a brave kid,” Aleksei replied.

Martinez, 62, has worked for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club for 38 years. He remembered dealing with a car fire once, but nothing else of note.

“You hear about how guys step up and do something in a situation like that,” Martinez said. “You always wonder, ‘How would I react?’ It turns out I never even thought about it. I just did it.”

Once the smoke had cleared, Martinez was subjected to the expected round of co-worker ribbing.

“Nice going, Dave,” said one. “Now clean it up.”

Del Mar head man Joe Harper arrived just as the fire engines were pulling away.

“Where’s Dave?” Harper asked.

“Oh, he’s flying around somewhere,” came the answer.

“Think he’s a lock for Employee of the Week?” the boss was asked.

“How about ‘…of the Millennia,’ ” Harper replied.

Martinez ignored the wisecracks and dismissed the praise.

“I’m no hero,” he said. “You want to see a hero?”

Martinez reached for his three-ring work binder and turned to the back flap, upon which was taped the photograph of a young man.

“My son, Joseph Anthony,” Martinez said. “We lost him to ocular melanoma, a rare form of cancer. He was 25.”

“He wanted to quit,” Harper recalled. “When his son died it hit him very hard. We made sure he knew we considered him part of our family here, and that we’d do everything we could to help him get through it. Makes you think, though, what could have happened if Dave Martinez isn’t at work at Del Mar this morning.”

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the rescue of Aleksei provides one of those ripe opportunities for reflection upon the intersection of time and place and the random collision of individuals, unknown to each other, at a moment that makes all the difference in the world. The transmigration of souls is fancy, not fact. But those who do not believe entirely in coincidence will note that Joseph Martinez died in 2006 and Aleksei Avila was born in January of 2007, and that while Dave Martinez was unable to save his own son, he did not hesitate when given the chance to save another’s.