It was a passion that started early on.
“He was so smart, just bright, sincere. He loved the fire service, you could see that,” Berwick Town Manager Stephen Eldridge said.
From the age of 10, Joel Barnes’ father, Michael, said his son was destined to wear a uniform. Joel Barnes, a fire captain with the Berwick Fire Department, died fighting an apartment blaze on March 1. Michael Barnes said his son and another firefighter became trapped on the third floor of an apartment building, where Joel Barnes protected that firefighter from the heat and the flames as the two waited to be rescued.
The 32-year-old grew up in Old Orchard Beach and was a 2005 graduate of Old Orchard Beach High School.
“The minute he stepped in, he wanted to be a firefighter and he was just laser focused on that, nothing was going to stop him,” Barnes’ former teacher Jimmy Pirrello said.
Barnes’ former teachers say he was a student they knew had potential.
“When I always look around in case something was going to occur. Joel was one of the students I could count on. That he would rise up and he did,” Pirrello said.
Barnes went on to work for a handful of department across Maine, including in his hometown.
“Capt. Barnes worked with us for a number of years and a lot of the guys here knew him very well. Very well liked, a very good guy,” Old Orchard Beach Fire Capt. Brett Jones said.
Committed to his career, in 2010 Barnes enrolled at Southern Maine Community College in their fire science program.
“When Joel came to school here, he was a really quiet guy,” Eric Wellman at SMCC said.
Quiet, but dedicated.
“When he got into the scenarios that we did and he would work on things we did, he would be passionate about it. He’d ask a lot of great questions,” Wellman said.
While Barnes didn’t graduate from the program, he went on continue his training. He moved away from Maine for two years to work as a firefighter in Horry County, South Carolina, from 2013 until 2015.
“Joel was initially a quiet, reserved type, but once you got to know him, you’d come to realize he had quite the sense of humor. He was easy to get along with, he was a great person to work alongside with and serve with,” Brad Kavetski, with Horry County Fire Rescue, said.
But friends say Maine was Barnes’ home.
He came back and joined Berwick fire in 2016 as a captain as well as a training and safety coordinator.
“They’re out there saving lives and I know Joel has had several times where he’s saved people’s lives,” Eldridge said.
And that’s why many of the people Barnes has touched over the years say they weren’t surprised by his actions.
“A shock that it happened but at the same time seeing the details around it and that he put his life for somebody else, a fellow coworker, and to protect somebody else that wasn’t a shock. That’s who he was,” former classmate Carrie Blow said.
“We’re proud that Joel was one of us at Old Orchard Beach High School and we’re more proud of his heroism,” Pirrello said.
His former teachers hope that Barnes’ story can show others that his service and his sacrifice had meaning.
“They’re going to learn about him. They’re going to tell me about him, talk about what he did. He will forever be immortalized as long as I work here,” Wellman said.