Issues Surface During Probe of Indiana Firefighter's Death

Fellow firefighters at Wea Township said the victim was very safety-conscious.

Steven Smith had a deep and abiding connection to his wife and three daughters that affected everything he did as a maintenance man at Alcoa and as a volunteer firefighter for Wea Township.

There were cell phone updates from the bleachers at his eldest daughter's softball games that he looked forward to receiving during his evening shifts at Alcoa. A special handshake he shared with his middle daughter. And the quiet hope his youngest girl would take up his interest in go-cart racing.

He and his wife, Tammy, had been together for 20 of his 34 years, and adjusting to life without him is something she has a hard time imagining, nearly four months after he died while fighting a house fire.

"He's safety-conscious. He wasn't a risk taker," Tammy Smith, 36, said recently, noting that his daughters were waiting for their dad to come home from the June 25 Sunday afternoon fire run so they could resume practicing softball.

That's why Tammy Smith has a hard time accepting the suggestion that her husband failed to follow proper safety procedures the day he died.

"I don't want, after 10 years of volunteering, for that to go down as the only thing that's remembered about it," Tammy Smith said. "I think there's a lot of speculation over what happened, and Steve can't tell his version."

Chris Evander, acting chief of the Wea fire department, said a report by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration cites the department for seven safety violations.

The violations include Smith being inside the burning house without a partner at his side, and the department's failure to notify the Indiana Department of Labor about the fatality within eight hours of his death.

The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not responded to an Oct. 3 public records request by the Journal & Courier seeking release of the report.

The Indiana Division of Fire and Building Safety, however, also investigated the fire and provided a copy upon request. According to the report:

Smith entered the burning house at 4117 E. County Road 700 South with Wea firefighter Bryce Baskett. Both noticed the floor was hot to touch and "springy."

Smith reportedly told Baskett to leave and aim a hose into the basement through a side window. Baskett told investigators he resisted leaving but that Smith was insistent.

Because no one was near him, no one witnessed Smith falling through the floor into the basement.

Evander, who arrived on the scene of the fire after Smith and Baskett, found an unmanned hose leading into the basement. He turned down a large exhaust fan that was blowing smoke out of the house and heard the call for help.

"I heard Steve clearly say, 'I'm down here -- come get me.' "

Difficult rescue At least seven firefighters participated in the attempt to rescue Smith from the house while the last of the oxygen-starved flame smoldered.

By the time they got Smith up the stairs and out of the house, his airway was so coated with soot the medic initially was unable to insert a breathing tube, a paramedic told investigators.

Medics started advanced life support and continued it during the ambulance trip to Home Hospital. The Tippecanoe County coroner listed carbon monoxide intoxication as the cause of death.

The owners of the home, Alex and Pamela Pilotte, were not at home the afternoon of the fire. It was storming, and a neighbor, who looked outside and noticed smoke coming from the house, called 911 at 2:32 p.m.

Investigators believe the fire likely started when lightning struck the home's television antenna. The current followed the coaxial cable, which entered the basement and was strung between a metal air duct and the ground floor joists that form the basement ceiling. Lost balance? Theories differ about how Smith ended up falling through the floor. Evander believes Smith exited the house behind Baskett and was standing outside the front door when he lost his balance and fell forward while operating the 13/4-inch hose that was set up to shoot a mixture of water, foam and air on the fire.

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