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.
“One person should be able to handle it, but if you’re not prepared when you open and close the line, the air pressure could knock you off your balance,” Evander said. “He fell forward and the floor gave way and he slid down.”
Evander suspects that Smith fell head-first because he had a bump on his forehead above his left eye and because his feet were toward the front door when Evander found him.
“We can’t prove” where Smith was standing before the floor gave way, Evander said. “Either way, Steve had the nozzle in his hand, and it went with him to the basement.”
If Smith did choose to enter or stay in the house alone, Evander said he’s not in a position to question the decision.
“Seeing Steve operate at other fire scenes, I can’t imagine that he would put himself or anyone else in jeopardy,” Evander said. “If Steve made that call, that was his call. I don’t know what he was seeing to cause him to make that decision.”
‘Two in, two out’ Known as the “Fire Fighters’ Two-in/Two-out Regulation,” OSHA requires that firefighters work in teams of two or more people who maintain voice or visual contact when conducting an interior attack on a structure fire.
The same regulation requires that another team of at least two other firefighters be standing ready outside the structure in case a firefighter goes down inside.
Evander said fire departments in Tippecanoe County are working to set up a rapid intervention team, a group of two to four firefighters who would respond to the scene of a structure fire with the sole purpose of standing by, ready to rescue firefighters who get in trouble during an interior attack on a fire.
But even if such a system had been in place at the time of the June 25 fire, it might not have saved Smith, Evander said. The floor collapsed only a few minutes after the first firefighters arrived. An RIT team, had one existed, likely would still have been on the way, Evander said.
Smith’s family members are satisfied that Smith’s fellow firefighters made every effort to save him.
“We believe that everything was done humanly possible to save his life,” said Bob Smith, one of Steve’s two brothers. “We have thanked them time and time again.”
They agreed with Evander that the biggest factor in Smith’s death was the fire-weakened floor, damage that was not visible from above.
“As soon as he took that first step in there, it would have given way,” brother Bill Smith said.
Bob Smith said he has renewed respect for the dangers firefighters face since his brother’s death.
“It changes my attitude. When I see blue lights — or any lights — I’m probably the first one over.”
Learning from tragedy Keith Barker, chief of the Randolph Township Volunteer Fire Department in Romney and a career firefighter for West Lafayette, said he has given much thought to the circumstances surrounding Smith’s death.
While the two-in, two-out rule is basic, unforeseen events do happen. Since June 25, his department has conducted training sessions on how to get an unconscious firefighter out of a basement after the floor has collapsed.
“We have attempted to re-create that scenario, and we have drilled and drilled. If we had that exact same situation, I think we could get him out pretty quickly now,” Barker said.
He said he and other chiefs have not met yet and discussed as a group what happened and what should have happened that day. That time will come after the IOSHA investigation is complete and all the department chiefs have had a chance to look at it.
“If we don’t learn from that, then he died for nothing,” Barker said. “I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what the circumstances were and why he went in, but we’ve got to use it as a training tool.”
— Contributing: JOE GERRETY/David Smith/Journal & Courier