Thomas Smith III, 30, who goes by Trey, is the assistant chief of the Culkin Volunteer Fire Department in Warren County, Miss. He’s been a firefighter with the department since he was 16 years old and has held every rank including chief. Despite all those years of experience and training, nothing could have prepared him for the events of May 16, 2009.
That was the night the home he grew up in burned flat and killed his two sons, Tyler, four, and Haden, 22 months old. It nearly took his life and that of his wife, Jennifer. Despite his devastating losses, Smith never once thought about giving up the fire service and has continued to serve as a volunteer in his home town.
It’s for his actions on that horrific night and his unwavering dedication to the fire service that Smith has been honored as a recipient of a Firehouse Magazine 2009 Heroism & Community Service Award.
“The fire department is a close knit family,” said Smith. “It’s where I belong. I need to keep doing what I had been doing. I want to keep helping people. I want to keep going to fires. It’s what drives me.”
Smith’s service to the fire community began as a junior firefighter and he anticipates a long career into the future.
Last May 15 started out as any other day; Smith had gone to work at Rebel Welding & Industrial, a welding and industrial supply business in Vicksburg where he is a salesman. It was a Friday and there was a state championship high school baseball game that night. After work, Smith collected Tyler and drove the 40 miles to the game, returning home at about 10 p.m.
He chilled out watching television and Hayden went to be with mom on the bed in the master bedroom. His brother was already there, asleep.
“I went to bed at about 11:30 and I put both the boys in their own bed in their own room,” Smith said. He then turned in as well, beat from a long day of work and the evening’s game.
Little did he know that was the last time he’d see his kids alive.
An hour after turning in, Jennifer woke up to the smell of smoke and rousted her sleeping husband. It was about 12:40 a.m. on May 16.
“I woke up and I could smell it too and I could hear the popping of the wood burning,” Smith said.
In a groggy state, Smith thought it was no big deal and figured he’d get up, hit it with an extinguisher and it would be over.
“I stood up and the smoke came down to between my chest and stomach,” Smith said. “I knew then something was really wrong.”
He opened the door to the hallway and felt the intense heat and thick acrid smoke. He immediately thought about his two sons in the next bedroom, but was driven back. He turned his attention to his wife who had broken her ankle five weeks before and was in a cast, on the bed.
“I told her she needed to slide across the bed and I had to get her out of the house,” Smith said. He kicked out a window and helped his wife out the window of the ranch-style home.
“My fire radio and my cell phone were all on the other end of the house, so the only way I had to call for help is on the mobile radio in my truck,” he said.
Smith assisted his wife to the truck and radioed for help. He reported a structure fire at his house with entrapment.
“The desperation in his voice could be heard on radios across the county and volunteers from almost every department in the county sprung to action, calling in route,” wrote Johnathan Priddy, a firefighter with the neighboring Bovina Fire Department, in his nomination of Smith for the award. “This wasn’t just any call; this was one of our own.”
Because of his status as an officer, Smith keeps his turnout gear in his truck for quicker responses to scenes, even though the fire station is only about four miles away. He didn’t take time to suit up, but did grab his Nomex hood and headed back to the front door.
“By this time, a passerby stopped and I told him to make sure my wife, who was in the truck, was OK, and to back her up away from the fire,” Smith said.