Employee Spotlight: Javier Ortega, Firefighter
From the coast of Havana to the Airport’s runway, Javier Ortega’s story is a tribute to perseverance.
The Tampa International Airport firefighter was born in Cuba but emigrated with his family to the United States when he was 20. His journey to the U.S. can only be described as harrowing.
“We were able to make it out of Cuba and to the Dominican Republic,” Javier said. “When we decided to risk things and try for Puerto Rico, we found what was advertised as a cruise ship with amenities and food. Each seat to the U.S. on that vessel cost $1,000.”
But when Javier’s family showed up to take the trip, they discovered the boat was no more than a homemade raft.
“We decided it was worth the risk,” he said. “For 28 hours on the open waters, 40 of us were packed in so tight that we were unable to move. The raft behind us didn’t make it. It overturned, and all onboard passed away.”
Upon reaching Puerto Rico around 3:30 a.m., the local police soon showed up to help, giving the traumatized raft survivors water and helping them clean up after the long journey. Outside the station, Javier and his fellow passengers waited outside on the street, not knowing their fate.
“Eventually, the police called us each by name, processed our paperwork, and sent us on our way,” he said. “We had made it.”
Local news interviewed his mother (pictured left with Javier in the white t-shirt) about their journey.
After making his way to Miami, Javier began the process of obtaining a green card. Six years later in 1996, he became a U.S. citizen. Javier met his wife, Lori, in West Palm Beach and after a year of dating, they were married. They eventually decided to move to Tampa Bay, purchased property in Dover and built a log cabin they reside in today.
Javier began working for a sign company but knew he wanted to do something else.
“In 2003, my best friend mentioned that he wanted to work for the Tampa Fire Department,” Javier said. “We both decided to go to the fire academy together and ended up being hired around the same time.”
15 years later, Javier and his best friend were given the opportunity to join ARFF, TPA's Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting station. They jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always been fascinated by planes and aviation,” Javier said. “My goal was to work at the Airport. Ever since I was a kid, watching planes has amazed me.”
To this day, Javier beams when describing his days as an Airport firefighter.
“I love everything about my job,” he said. "We get to make a difference and help people survive and that means the world to me. Our team has many good days together and we make a great crew. I wake up each morning looking forward to coming to work. We have fun together and cook together and, of course, joke with each other. And we also spend time together outside of work.”
While the role can be incredibly rewarding, Javier said, it has its tough moments.
“People often don’t realize that when something major happens, we’re some of the first to respond to it," he said. "Some days can be difficult because I care about those I’m working to help and situations can be complex. I always pray nothing major happens, but when we get a call, my adrenaline starts pumping.”
On his off days, Javier and his wife have a small farm that keeps them busy.
“We have too many horses,” Javier joked. “Our farm has a miniature donkey, several miniature pigs, and even chickens. When we can break away from the farm, we love going to the movies together. I’m always down to grab some apple pie ice cream from Coldstone afterwards.”
What's on the bucket list of someone who has already experienced so much in life?
“We just returned from an amazing trip to Spain," Javier said. "It was incredible and I can’t wait to go back and explore more of Europe. I also want to make a trip to Alaska at some point.”
When asked for a piece of advice Javier would give to someone looking to work in his profession, he said embracing the challenges is key.
“You have to love your job,” he said. “Show up with your whole heart and the sky is the limit.”