The firefighters in Marbella are in mourning. One of their number has died, but he wasn't a fire fighter or even a man. He was little Benjamin, a seven-year-old who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and became a part of the firefighting family. After months carrying him in their arms up and down the stairs from his home, where there was no lift, they have now paid for his funeral with the money they had been collecting to improve his living conditions.
That was why the alarms sounded at the fire station last Friday. Benjamin had died, after months battling his illness. In October last year, while playing football, he suddenly had a severe headache and felt dizzy. He was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor, which caused paralysis. However, he underwent treatment and the doctors gave him the go-ahead to go back to school in January.
The problem was that he lived in a fourth-floor apartment in Avenida General López Domínguez, with his mother and sister, and there was no lift. It was impossible for them to carry him up and down the stairs every day. That is when the AVOI child oncology volunteers association asked the Marbella Fire Brigade for help.
"He captivated us with his smile. We all loved him," says José Pérez, who was the first to visit the apartment to see how they could assist and immediately offered to go every day. His colleagues agreed to help and they set up a system to carry him downstairs at 10am so his mother could push him in a wheelchair to the Santa Teresa school, and pick him up at 2pm when his classes had finished. "Sometimes those of us on duty did it, as long as there was no emergency to deal with, and sometimes colleagues who were off duty went. There were always volunteers," says José. "Occasionally we had to leave in a rush because there was a fire somewhere, but then we went back later so he never missed school. And he used to laugh at us," he recalls.
During those three months they began collecting money so the family could move into an apartment with a lift, or on the ground floor. They planned to pay a year's rent in advance, "but that's impossible in Marbella, and also when people realised Benjamín's situation they backed off," he says. Nevertheless, other people did get involved. Friends of Jose, who owns the Sho-Dan gymnasium, on the ground floor of Benjamín's apartment block, also helped to carry him up and down the stairs in the afternoons if he had a medical appointment or just wanted to be outdoors for a while.
As they couldn't find alternative living accommodation, the firefighters installed air conditioning in the apartment "because they are on the top floor and it was 38 degrees, and that was really bad for his tumor," says José. They also planned to buy him a new mattress, but when they told the shop owner who it was for, he gave it to them as a gift.
"A lot of people have donated money to the professional firefighters association, which is handling the funds for Benjamín, and we carried on collecting for him, right to the very end," he says. They paid for his cremation, because the family had no money to do so.
Benjamín's mother has been out of work since December and has asked for help under the Law of Dependency, but has not received any so far. "We have had to pay for essential things for this family which should have been the responsibility of the authorities," says José.
Benjamín's death has come as a severe blow for the firefighters. "We thought he was going to get through this. He had a speech therapist and a physiotherapist. We all loved him, and it is very hard to have lost him. Helping him was never a burden for any of us," he says.