Officer trapped in blazing cruiser rescued
BY SUSANNAH A. NESMITH AND TRENTON DANIEL
snesmith@herald.com


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Fire rescue workers had to use hand-held extinguishers to fight a growing blaze inside this patrol car, where the pinned officer was screaming for help. IGNATIUS CARROLL JR., MIAMI FIRE RESCUE / SPECIAL TO THE HERALD


At about 5:40 a.m. Thursday, Miami and Coral Gables police officers heard a chilling dispatch -- car accident, officer involved, possibly trapped, car on fire.

Miami Officer Darryl G. Smith -- Smitty to his friends -- was pinned in his flaming police cruiser after a head-on collision with a pickup truck on South Dixie Highway in the Gables. He was too seriously injured and his car too badly damaged to radio for help, but dozens of passersby called 911. Police raced to the scene from all directions.

And the desperate battle to save Smitty's life began.

The first officers to arrive grabbed hand-held fire extinguishers from the trunks of their cars and frantically beat back the flames.

''The fire could not be stopped with the fire extinguishers we were using,'' said Miami Officer David Carpenter, still shaken from his morning fighting the fire.

``You had officers crying and screaming. [The fire] was getting worse and worse, and closer to him.''

The accident happened just south of Grand Avenue. An unidentified woman, southbound in a Toyota Tacoma, suddenly jumped the median and smashed into Smith's car, police said. She was ejected and her pickup flipped on its side, pinning her underneath.

Four other cars piled up before traffic on South Dixie ground to a halt. The early rush-hour crash shut South Dade's main north-south roadway for the entire morning, stranding tens of thousands of motorists.

OFFICERS HEAR CALL

At 5:41 a.m. -- the same time the officers heard the call -- Gables Fire dispatched a rescue truck. Two minutes later, a fire engine was sent from Station 2, less than a half-mile away at South Dixie and Riviera Drive.

At 5:44, the city of Miami -- hearing one of its officers was in the accident -- also dispatched an engine from Station 8, about a mile and half away on Oak Avenue near Cocowalk.

Meanwhile, a woman who saw the crash ran crying into a nearby Amoco gas station. Kirk Kahn, working the graveyard shift, said he couldn't leave the station, but sent her back with two fire extinguishers. He watched as police scrambled to help Smith.

''His legs were crushed,'' Kahn said. 'They were folded like a rag doll . . . He kept saying, `Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to me?' ''

The dashboard of the patrol car was pushed up against Smith's chest, Kahn said. Smith's ribs were also broken, his hips smashed.

HANDS CUT

Some of the officers cut their hands trying to open his door. Others burned the hair off their arms getting too close to the flames.

Tina Mestre, manager of the Mobil across from the wreck, said the station lent all three of its fire extinguishers as well.

''Good Samaritans rushed in here and asked for fire extinguishers, and we gave them what we had,'' she said.

The Gables rescue truck arrived at about 5:45, the fire engine at roughly 5:47.

Firefighters quickly pulled the hose off the engine. For a split second, the officers thought everything was going to be OK.

But nothing happened.

''For some reason, he couldn't get the supply of water out of the hose,'' Gables Fire Chief Richard Cook said in an interview later.

The police officers rushed back into the battle. Carpenter heard a female officer call over the radio for more officers with more fire extinguishers. And more came.

Some firefighters worked to free the woman pinned under her truck while three-foot high flames leaped up out of the engine of Smith's car. His windshield exploded.

A police officer went to a nearby Shell station and begged for more fire extinguishers.

`GET US A TRUCK'

''The vehicle was beginning to burn out of control,'' Carpenter said. 'Our people were screaming, `We need a truck with water. If this truck's not going to pump water, get us a truck that will.' ''

Another officer tried to use a plastic raincoat to channel the blaze away from Smith -- anything to hold back the flames, police spokesman Delrish Moss said.

Miami officers used 17 extinguishers from their cars and Gables police used at least three, Moss said.

''The fire got so severe that we thought we were going to have to take life over limb and basically rip him out of the car,'' Carpenter said. 'Smitty said to us, `I'm burning. I'm burning.' His legs were on fire.''

Finally, after what seemed like forever but was actually only a couple of minutes, the city of Miami fire truck arrived, at 5:50 a.m.

'I screamed, we were all screaming at the truck when he arrived, `The car's on fire! The car's on fire! Get the hose!' '' Carpenter said. ``The firefighter from Engine 8 grabbed the hose and turned and blasted the car.''

FINALLY EXTINGUISHED

And the fire was out.

''We had exhausted all of the extinguishers,'' Carpenter said. ``[Smith] would have perished in that vehicle if Engine 8 hadn't responded when they did.''

Gables firefighters specially trained in extrications used the Jaws of Life to rip open the cruiser and get Smith out.

A motorcade of police cars formed to block South Dixie intersections and parts of Interstate 95 as Smith's ambulance sped to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center.

Smith, 51, who was in serious but stable condition Thursday night, was on his way to work when the accident happened. A traffic homicide investigator, he has been on the force since 1986.

The driver of the Tacoma was also taken to Jackson, where she was in critical condition, police said. The extent of her injuries was not released.

Another motorist suffered a broken arm and was taken to Doctors Hospital in the Gables. The other three drivers in the crash suffered minor injuries and did not need to go to the hospital, police said.

The Gables police traffic homicide unit is investigating the crash.

BLOOD TEST

''Blood was drawn from [the woman driver] already, and it will be determined later on if alcohol or drugs were involved,'' police spokesman Martin Barros said. The procedure is standard in all serious accidents.

The Gables fire department is also investigating what went wrong with the fire engine. Lt. Charles Davis said the truck was tested on Tuesday and Wednesday and was in working order.

Herald staff Writer Joan Fleischman contributed to this report.