Courtesy video by Mike Berube

BERWICK — The family of a Berwick firefighter killed in a four-alarm blaze Friday mourned the loss of a son and brother whose desire from boyhood was to help others and serve his community.

Berwick Fire Capt. Joel Barnes Photo courtesy of the Barnes family

Capt. Joel Barnes, 32, of Shapleigh, died from injuries he sustained after he and another firefighter became trapped in a third-floor room of an apartment building on Bell Street in Berwick, according to fire officials and his family.

Barne’s father, Michael Barnes, 66, of Old Orchard Beach, said his son’s last act was to shield another firefighter when the flames and the heat pressed in around them.

“They were told to set down, to hang there and wait for rescue, and he covered the other firefighter up and saved his life,” Michael Barnes said. “I met with the person that he saved. He came up and he hugged me and said, ‘Joel saved my life today. He jumped on me.'”

The announcement of Barnes’ death followed an intense effort by crews from 17 communities in Maine and New Hampshire to control a fire that completely destroyed the third floor of the three-story apartment building and engulfed a rear wooden porch area.

Michael Barnes said his son was among a group of five firefighters who went into the building to fight the flames, and only three of them found a way to escape. Barnes and the firefighter he protected had to be pulled from the building.

Barnes was unresponsive when his colleagues removed him from the building, his father said. EMTs and others immediately began efforts to resuscitate him, but were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover.

“They worked on him all the way to (the hospital) and he never ever came out of it,” Michael Barnes said.

The cause of Barnes’ death was not immediately known, and an autopsy is planned for Saturday, Maine State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said.

“Obviously, you can see this was a difficult situation for all of the fire departments who responded to this event,” Thomas said. “I tip my hat to every single one of them for the work they put in to saving their own, trying to make as much progress as possible, saving any lives of the public who live there. And fortunately, for the civilians who were involved, everybody is all right.”

Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the fire, which displaced at least eight people and almost completely destroyed the building.

At the height of the fire, flames and smoke poured out of the building and smoke could be seen throughout town. Firefighters tried to vent a portion of the collapsing roof, but had to come back down from their ladders, according to a report from Foster’s Daily Democrat.

A resident told WMTW that the fire started on a third-floor porch and she tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher.

Four firefighters were treated at a local hospital and released, Thomas said.

The Berwick Fire Department is composed of career, per diem and on-call personnel, with one career firefighter/EMT on duty at all times. The department responds to fewer than 1,000 incidents annually, according to the department website.

Town assessing records list 10 Bell St. as a four-unit apartment building constructed in 1986. The owner is listed as Gerard Letarte of Somersworth, New Hampshire.

Joel Barnes’ family said he was laser-focused on his career in firefighting from the age of 10, when he began poring over thick text books about science and medicine.

“At a very young age he would start reading about all these medical books,” Michael Barnes said. “At the time he was probably about 10. He took an interest. He wanted to be firefighter and a paramedic, and he never wavered from it.”

Barnes graduated from Old Orchard Beach High School in 2005 and attended the fire science program at Southern Maine Community College before going on to more training for the Horry County Fire Department in South Carolina before he served as a firefighter and paramedic in Myrtle Beach, his family said.

Living in South Carolina was an adventure for Barnes, said his sister, Kara Allaire, 35, of Dover, New Hampshire. But he returned to Maine a couple of years ago so he could be closer to his parents and so he could have a relationship with Allaire’s children.

Her brother had bought a house in Shapleigh with community lake access, and he was a proud homeowner who enjoyed making the place his own, Allaire said.

Now she is devastated that her two children will grow up without their uncle, who seemed to let his guard down the most when he was playing with his niece and nephew.

Allaire said Barnes had a knack for making up silly, creative games to play with his nephew, and the two bonded over watching Scooby Doo cartoons. When the family visited Barnes at the fire station, he would put his nephew in the fire trucks, she said.

She said she will miss his dark, sarcastic wit, and she laughed remembering how her brother always seemed to have a Cumberland Farms coffee glued to his hand.

Allaire said her brother’s death still felt surreal.

“I let my guard down with how dangerous it was with what he was doing,” she said. “It seemed like he was very skilled and knew what he was doing. You just get a false sense of security that he’s going to be OK.”

But his work in the fire service was essential to him, she said.

“It was his job and his hobby and it was his interest and it was his passion,” Allaire said.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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