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James Lamb and his brother climbed into the minivan.

The Lincoln men had just arrived in Mexico. Their mom and a dozen other members of First Evangelical Free Church were there with them.

The Lamb brothers -- James, 34, and Andy, 33 -- have been making this mission trip since high school at Lincoln Christian.

They worked in prisons, held Bible school in the park -- anything and everything the people needed.

James' first love was working with men addicted to drugs and alcohol. This year, he planned to help build a wall around the rehab clinic.

But on Nov. 17, the brothers were taking care of the first order of business -- a trip to Ensenada for potable water.

They left their mission headquarters in the rolling hills of northwestern Mexico just before sunset.

James got behind the wheel. The pair started up a narrow dirt road.

The brothers couldn't know it then, but two vehicles were heading their way.

Both big trucks preparing for the next day's race -- the longest, toughest cross-country race in the world, The Baja 1000.

One of those trucks would slam into their van at the crest of a hill.

The other would arrive minutes later, having watched the first truck careen by, leaving them stunned by the driver's speed on the treacherous terrain.

The men in the second truck had been in Mexico three weeks preparing for the race. They're adrenaline junkies, mountain climbers, skydivers, off-road racers.

Three of the four are U.S. Marines.

James and Andy Lambs' mother has another name for the men in that truck.

Angels.

* * *

"You like clean jokes or dirty jokes?"

The Marine was talking to James Lamb. James, the father of two, was trapped upside-down in the smashed minivan.

Kent Kroeker and Jeremy Graczyk had wedged in beside him.

Clean, the trapped man answered.

The two Marines looked at each other.

Dude, we don't know any clean jokes.

Kent Kroeker tells this story Tuesday, on the phone from his home in San Diego.

He's one of the angels.

He had raced the Baja 1000 seven times already. The 43-year-old knew the route -- public roads -- were populated by locals, slow vehicles, little kids and even cows before race day.

He can't repeat what he said when the other truck passed him, he says.

Kroeker spent 12 years as an active duty Marine, a pilot. He's a major in the Marine Corps Reserve now and sells high-performance suspension in San Diego.

He hasn't forgotten his first aid training.

"It's very simple stuff, very mechanical. How to keep a highly traumatized human body stabilized until you can get the person out."

James Lamb had a highly traumatized human body.

His legs were crushed. He was bleeding profusely, his left arm attached to his body by a tendon alone.

When Kroeker and Graczyk first came upon the accident, they jumped from their truck.

They shouted orders to Jeremy's dad, Jim, and Colt Hubbell, the third Marine in their truck.

Secure the road.

Keep the crowd back.

Kroeker and Graczyk moved toward the van.

What's your name, they asked. How old are you? Where are you from?

James answered.

Blood streamed from his arm. Blood gushed from his chin.

I'm bleeding really bad, he said. Can you check my face?

Kroeker answered, matter of fact.

That's how you do it, the Marine said. Don't scare the injured. Don't make it worse. No matter how bad it is.

And it was pretty bad.

"James, you just got a little cut on your chin. No big deal."

Really?

"Yeah. But I'm going to help with your arm here."

Graczyk cut off a length of seat belt. Hubbell handed him a screwdriver. Kroeker wrapped the belt around the arm and twisted it tight with the screwdriver, creating a tourniquet.

They held James up so he could breathe. Touched him all over, checking for broken bones, internal injuries.

They took his vitals. They wrote them down, took them again.

Two hours they stayed, until Mexican medics arrived. Taking turns trying to free the man with crowbars and whatever tools they could find.

They kept the tourniquet tight. They kept asking questions, making sure James was with them.

What's your name? How old are you? Where are you from?

Lincoln, Nebraska?

A good hearty, corn-fed Midwesterner, they joked.

"He was a good All-American guy," Kroeker said later. "He's a missionary and we're two heinous Marines trying to help him out."

* * *

James eventually made it to a hospital in San Diego. There is more to the story, as there always is.

Other heroes, other miracles, like the plane that was in the area for the race that took them back to the United States.

Saving his arm. Saving his crushed leg.

Sandy Lamb tells this part of the story. Her son Andy survived the accident with only cuts and bruises. His trauma is more inside, more emotional.

Eventually, James will come home to rehab.

For now, his mom is with him. His wife, Tyley, too. Relatives are caring for their two children back in Lincoln.

A Marine visited the hospital on Thanksgiving.

Tyley wouldn't let Kent Kroeker go.

She cried and cried. Thanked him over and over for saving her husband.

James would have bled to death waiting for medics.

"I say it just happened that they came along," Susan Lamb says. "But we knew they were angels."

The Marines aren't having any of it.

The odds were astronomically slim two trained Marines would arrive on the scene, Kroeker says, and so it was lucky. But they just did what they'd done a dozen times, or more, before.

It didn't take any courage or bravery, says the man who climbed mountains and flew in combat and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and finished second in his class in the Baja 1000 this year.

"If they knew us better, we are no angels. Believe me."

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Reach Cindy Lange-Kubick at (402) 473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

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