Assistant Chief Thomas Smith III, Culkin (Miss.) VFD

Despite his own devastating fire losses, Smith never once thought about giving up the fire service and has continued to serve as a volunteer in his home town.

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.