PONCE, Puerto Rico — Firefighters from across America beat a steady path to Ponce, Puerto Rico's No. 2 city, which was named after Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who sought the Fountain of Youth.
It was Ponce de Leon who gave the 110- by 35-mile island its name when he exclaimed Qu e puerto rico! (What a rich port!) on landing here Aug. 12, 1508.
Ponce de Leon didn't discover Puerto Rico. Columbus did 15 years earlier on his second voyage to the New World. He called it San Juan Bautista. But Ponce de Leon's salutation stuck. The firefighters come to Ponce because of its bomberos (firemen).
They come to see Puerto Rico's oldest fire station, the 1883 Parque de Bombas in Plaza las Delicias (the Fire Station in Delightful Plaza) one of the most colorful, most unusual fire houses anywhere.
You can't miss it. It stands out in the city's center. Its architecture is Victorian and whimsical featuring fan-shaped, small, arched windows. Its shingles are painted bright red and black.
On Sundays, the Ponce Municipal Band, seated on the large open balcony protruding from the fabled fire house, serenades the people of Ponce who gather in Plaza Las Delicias.
Ponce, population 170,000, pays greater tribute to its bomberos than perhaps any other city under the U.S. flag.
There is a street called 25 de Enero 1899 in Ponce. It commemorates the heroes of a famous fire that occurred on Jan. 25, 1899.
A row of 11 identical modest homes all painted red and black, the colors of the Ponce Fire Department, are side by side on 25 de Enero 1899. Each house has a rooftop weather vane in the shape of a firefighting symbol--a firefighter's hat, a ladder, a nozzle, a fire plug.
"The people of Ponce honored the bomberos of the city in 1948 by presenting these homes on 25 de Enero 1899 to the firemen in appreciation for all the good they had done throughout the history of the city," explained Hermina Santos, a resident of one of the houses.
Every fireman who then had at least 25 years service, "and there were many old-timers in the department then," noted Santos, was eligible to enter a lottery for the homes. Her father was one of the winners.
Under the lottery rules, the houses could be inhabited only by the winning firemen and their families. The homes could never be sold, only inherited by bomberos' descendants after they died.
Every day fresh flowers are placed at the monument in Plaza Las Delicias honoring the H e roes del Fuego del Polvorin, (The Heroes of the Ammunition Fire), the fire that the street 25 de Enero 1899 is named after.
On one wall of the Ponce Fire Department headquarters, a few blocks from the plaza and the old fire station, is a huge mural showing firemen rescuing people from the 1899 fire. The mural honors the memory of the nine most famous heroes of that blaze.
The largest tomb in the Ponce Municipal Cemetery has a bigger-than-life statue of a bombero holding a nozzle and hose. Buried within the huge tomb are the nine heroes of the 1899 ammunition fire and 60 other firemen. Every Ponce bombero with five years service is entitled to be buried in the tomb.
As new interments occur, the oldest remains in the tomb--except for the original nine heroes--are reburied elsewhere to make room.
"Let me tell you about the 'Heroes of the Ammunition Fire,' " said Capt. Cecilio Pena Ramos, 67, a 41-year member of the Ponce Fire Department. "U.S. forces occupied Ponce in 1899, the year of the great fire.
"The fire burned several blocks. The commander of the military base ordered Ponce evacuated for fear the army's ammunition dump would blow up. Nine volunteer firemen ignored the order, kept the fire from spreading to the ammunition dump, and, in doing so, saved many lives and most of the city.
"Ironically, the nine firemen were jailed for disobeying orders. There was such a huge public outcry that the U.S. Congress ordered the firemen freed and decorated them for heroism."
When Pena Ramos started his career as a bombero in Ponce, it was an all-volunteer department. "I taught baking in a large bakery for 21 years by day and was a fireman at night living here in the historic old firehouse," he recalled. "In 1955, we began to get paid--$1 a night."
Harry Perez, 30, for 10 years a Ponce bombero and chief of transportation for the department, noted that firefighters today are paid $660 a month with a maximum of $1,100 a month for a commander with 25 years of service.
"It isn't much money. It's almost a labor of love. But to be a bombero of Ponce is a great honor. We have tremendous respect from the people of Ponce," insisted Perez.
"It gives us a good feeling that firemen from all over America know about us and come here to see our flamboyant old fire station."