Assistant Chief Thomas Smith III, Culkin (Miss.) VFD
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.
With his mind racing, Smith made it back to the front of the house.
“I kicked the door in and I could see the fire everywhere, but there was a bit of area down low that I thought I could make it in,” he said. He did enter in and was burned, mostly on his neck.
By then, the danger was so obvious, even the passerby urged Smith not to go in, even though he knew he was interfering with a father trying to save his sons.
“He said you can’t go in there, but when it’s your children, you’ll do anything,” Smith said. “I realized that if I went in there, I wouldn’t come back out.”
Call it a bit of divine intervention, but Smith said he knew that despite anything he could humanly do, there was no chance his kids could have survived what he encountered at the front door.
“I don’t know what it was,” Smith said, of his decision to stop his futile attempt to save the boys. “I guess the thought of leaving my wife a widow, and having her deal with the loss of our kids. I guess God told me to step back and go take care of my wife. …So, I turned my attention to my wife.”
Within minutes, his fire department arrived to extinguish the now, nearly fully involved home where Smith grew up. Immediately behind the fire truck was the ambulance with paramedics from the paid city department.
The medics tended to Smith and his wife, who had both suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns, transporting them to the hospital. After being transferred to a larger trauma hospital for treatment, the Smiths were released and were back in Vicksburg at his mother-in-law’s home later that same day.
Smith said the fire pretty much leveled the single-story, wood-frame house that he estimates was about 35 years old when it burned.
“About the only place that didn’t burn, was my kids’ bedroom,” Smith said. “They were right in their beds, right where I put them.” He figures they died of smoke inhalation and “just never woke up.”
A state fire marshal investigated the cause of the blaze, because of the deaths, and determined it was an electrical problem on the exterior wall of the C side of the home. Ironically, it was the area that Smith had been in most recently before going to bed.
“We had smoke detectors, but I can’t honestly say I remember hearing them go off,” Smith said, noting that he was bushed from the long day’s activities. “There was just so much going on, I just don’t know if they were going off.”
The fire was so consuming, there was little that was salvageable, but what was saved is precious to him. The flags that draped his father and grandfather’s caskets were salvaged, although a little singed. He and his wife’s wedding album was almost untouched. And an anniversary necklace Smith had given Jennifer just the year before was salvaged too.
“It’s white gold and rose with two diamonds, for the kids we had,” Smith said.
Smith said he and his wife rebuilt on the site of the fire. Some may think that would be too much pain to endure, but Smith said that’s the only home he’s ever known and the place where his kids spent their short lives. They also want it to be the home of the children they plan to have in the future.
“It’s were we wanted to stay,” Smith said. “This is home.”
Smith said he gets asked constantly how he manages to stay in the fire service and continue to serve as a firefighter with the haunting memories of May 16 etched in his mind.
“It’s a question I’ve been asked many times and I guess I should probably answer it,” he said, taking a heavy sigh. “I’ve been doing this since 1996 and I’ve gone through every rank, firefighter, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief and chief. I’m assistant chief now. I love serving my community. It’s what I do. …I used to take my boys to the fire station and they’d say, ‘That’s daddy’s fire truck.’ We’re close. The fire department is my family now and families stick together.”
There’s another part to Smith’s rationale for staying with the department.
“I want to stay on because if I can help someone else, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I want people to know that life does go on and things are going to be OK. I want to be able show people there is light at the end of the tunnel. I know. I’ve been there.”