'Brothers to the Rescue' react to Castro's death

Posted at 6:00 PM, Nov 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-28 18:00:27-05

The unassuming memorial at Columbus Drive and Dale Mabry honors 'Brothers to the Rescue'-- a group that saved hundreds of rafters fleeing Castro's Cuba and some of those pilots were from Tampa.

"This is a Skymaster,” said Rei Martin holding a model airplane that sits in his office at Tampa Avionics, Inc.

When you meet Rei Martin, he'll tell you he's just a pilot.

"I've been flying since I was 14 years old,” said Martin.

"I'm just a volunteer, a humanitarian."

But to 35 people risking their lives to flee Castro's Cuba, Martin was a God send.

"I'm not a politician or anything. A life is a life,” he said.

"That's a raft-- a Cuban raft that had two little girls, two family members,” he said pointing at a photograph.

Cuban-born, he came to the U.S. as a kid too. Martin volunteered to fly 135 missions with "Brothers to the Rescue" into international waters.

The civilian pilots dropped rations to Cuban rafters in the Florida Straits, running cat and mouse games with Cuban gun ships and alerting the U.S. Coast Guard to scoop up the lucky ones.

"They got a bus, cut the top off of it, flipped it and put a Russian motorcycle engine on it and thirteen people came in on it," said Martin describing one raft.

In 1995, then a Tampa City Council member, Bob Buckhorn flew with him.

"You don't ever lose that picture in your mind as the aircraft was basically on its side as we were pushing stuff out to them,” said Mayor Buckhorn.

Martin piloted dozens of flights. The one he turned down to spend time with his family killed four brothers. In 1996, Cuban MiG’s shot down two of their planes.

"It was my flight. I was supposed to fly that day. I get goosebumps,” he said.

Goosebumps this pilot still gets when he brings out these photos and when he learned of Fidel Castro's death.

"I'm happy. I wish it would've happened ten years ago because now Raul is in power. Even though now, I think it's going to make a difference,” he said.