This article was published in sundaypost.com on the 16th February 2015
Willie McMartin’s been shot at, dragged survivors from collapsed buildings and negotiated with gun-toting Taliban warlords.
Real-life Thunderbird Willie is a founding member of the International Rescue Corps – an emergency team which responds to natural disasters with lightning speed.
But the aid worker, who operates from Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, is now facing his toughest challenge – battling terminal cancer.
Willie, 63, said doctors have told him the disease has now spread from his oesophagus to his liver. No-nonsense Willie said: “The way I look at it, I should have been crushed under a building years ago. What is hard to deal with is how the cancer affects the people around you – your friends and relatives.
“People who you have worked with for years suddenly arrive at the door absolutely devastated.”
Over the course of three decades, the ex-firefighter has joined more than 20 overseas missions and saved countless victims of devastating natural disasters.
One forever burned in his memory came after the worst earthquake in Pakistan’s history in 2005. Thousands had already been killed – but a cry for help from beneath a collapsed building provided a glimmer of hope among the horror.
Willie said: “I put my head in a hole and could see a tiny hand in the beam of light. There was a wee kid, about eight or 10, and me and a colleague pulled him out.
“He’d been there for three-and-a-half days. When we crawled back out, his relatives had run off with him. We didn’t even find out his name.”
Many other mercy missions have proved more than frustrating. Red-tape snared up the hopes of an IRC team rescuing survivors after the Japanese tsunami hit in 2011 – sparking fears of a fall-out from the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
And Taliban officials blocked the team’s safe passage to Rustaq, Afghanistan, to rescue earthquake victims in 1998. Almost 4,500 people were thought to have died.
The team were left stranded in a tense two-day stand-off at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, after the Taliban refused to let them pass.
Willie said: “It was the most unbelievable frustration. Everybody had Kalashnikovs and they sat there emotionless while we told them we needed to rescue people.
“We knew we were there for the right reasons but they didn’t believe us. They absolutely stopped the rescue dead in its tracks.”
Willie – whose team respond to global catastrophes just like the characters in the seminal 1960s Gerry Anderson puppet series, Thunderbirds – added:
“They didn’t shoot at us but that was always in the back of your mind.
“It has happened so many times. Almost every country I’ve been to, I’ve come up against guns.”
Now, supported by wife Anne-Marie, Willie is undergoing chemotherapy and is on a daily course of drugs.
“Because it is in the lymphatic system, there is nothing they can do,” said the IRC charity’s operational director. “I have been fortunate already. It is terminal but the chemotherapy has worked.
“We are now talking about planning holidays and getting away in the sun when, a couple of months ago, that wouldn’t have seemed possible.
I’m going to carry on as normal for as long as I can.”