When a Lesson Took a Dangerous Turn, a Room Full of Firefighters Couldn't Save Neal Smith

Penny Smith says she didn't know the full story behind her husband's death until the state and federal investigations.
Penny Smith says she didn't know the full story behind her husband's death until the state and federal investigations.
Photo by Daniel Kramer

Firefighter Neal Smith was almost out of the second floor of the six-story training tower when he became disoriented and fell to his knees.

Smith had excelled through the first day's exercises, and he was doing fine on day two. He was one of a few to clear a bunker with air left in his tank; others quickly depleted their supply as instructors, perched above the rafters, threw firecrackers and lassoed the trainees' air tanks with bungee cords. And now he was making his way through four floors of the tower until he reached the room where the mission was a right-hand victim search: Trainees had to slide beneath a plywood plank screwed to the entryway 30 inches above the floor and conduct a counter-clockwise sweep of the room while keeping their right hands on a wall. Visibility was impaired by a fog machine and by a web of fire hoses and landscaping timbers hanging above a floor littered with golf balls and marbles.

Weighed down by 75 pounds worth of gear that included an air tank, mask, coat and trousers still saturated with sweat from the previous day's exercises, trainees had to navigate their way through pallets, tires, metal pipes and burned-out box springs to reach a 2-by-10 wooden box with one end propped upon a barrel. The men had to crawl through the box, which spilled out into a floored elevator shaft, and then crawl back through to continue the sweep.

Smith's teammate went through first. By the time Smith shimmied inside to look for the hypothetical victim, his internal temperature was pushing 108 degrees, and his brain was swelling. Instead of continuing the search when he crawled out of the box, he circled back in.

An instructor spent five minutes yelling at Smith to get out of the box and continue his search. Smith didn't make it far: At a 55-gallon drum only a few feet from the box, Smith dropped to his knees. The instructor yelled at Smith to move. When that didn't work, the instructor ordered Smith's teammate "to go around him."

While sliding under the plywood barrier, the teammate reached behind him one last time to feel for Smith. Feeling only fiberglass, he turned and saw the reflective tape on Smith's helmet. There was no movement.

The teammate made it out to the second floor landing when the call went out: Mayday. Man down.

Instructors slid an unresponsive Smith under the doorway's plywood barrier, down the darkened stairway and out of the tower. On-site paramedics stripped off Smith's gear and clothing and felt for a pulse that wasn't there. They administered CPR, then tried a defibrillator, but Smith's skin, slick with sweat and hot to the touch, prevented a connection.

Ten minutes later, an ambulance rushed Smith to the emergency room. Doctors swathed Smith's overheated body in ice packs and cooling blankets. They cranked up cooling fans and shot him up with cold liquids. None of it would save his life.

Those last minutes before the 46-year-old's brain death, and the events leading up to it, are detailed in state and federal reports that shed light on an obscure, unregulated training program for firefighters -- mostly volunteer -- based in Beaumont. The smoke diver program, a punishing weekend course meant to teach firefighters how to survive in dangerous conditions on little to no air from their self-contained breathing apparatus, was touted by the East Texas Firemen's and Fire Marshal's Association, a nonprofit trade group for volunteer firefighters. As an elite corps, smoke diver graduates are encouraged to share their new-found skills at their individual departments. They also get a nifty patch.

At the end of the two-day course with 22 trainees, 13 completed the course, two students had washed out, two others went to the hospital, and four students did not return for the second day, saying they had safety concerns or the course wasn't as advertised. And Smith was dead.

According to the subsequent investigations, what may have saved him -- or at least increased his odds -- was one very simple thing: a tub of ice water at the scene.


 

For the final smoke diver drill, trainees had to plow through punishing tasks on each floor of a six-story tower.
For the final smoke diver drill, trainees had to plow through punishing tasks on each floor of a six-story tower.
Courtesy of the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office

"There was a mistress in the family," Penny Smith says, two years after her husband's death. "And it was called the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department."

Penny had to get used to sharing her husband, who always had one ear on his department-issued radio. She had to learn a second language. At any second, a "box could drop," and Smith would be out the door to a fire. She can rattle off radio chatter like it's tattooed in her memory.

But before all that, in 1995, Smith was a rising sales manager at Sprint, where Penny was a co-worker. But then, because Smith was always pushing himself, he became her boss. Smith later took a job with Zale's.

Penny says Smith, a Navy veteran, was moved to serve in some capacity after 9/11. In spring 2008, when members of the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department visited his daughter Natalie's pre-school, the girl went home that day and talked about seeing the fire truck. That's when Smith knew how he wanted to serve. He joined the "probie" class that July, and in November, Smith -- the oldest trainee -- graduated at the top of his class.

Located 30 miles north of Houston, the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department's 132 members serve roughly 70,000 residents spread over 26 square miles. At the time of the December 2013 Texas State Fire Marshal's Office report on Smith's death, the department had eight full-time and 17 part-time employees. The report noted that "apparatus includes three engines, one 75-foot ladder truck, four ambulances," and assorted vehicles for command, mass casualty and rehab. According to the report, the department in 2011 "responded to 795 fire-related -incidents and 3,000 medical incidents." Volunteers are required to work two 12-hour shifts a month. Smith always wanted to work more.

"Baseline was never good enough," Penny says. "It was always, 'I can do something better.'"

Which is why it was not a surprise when Smith told her he wanted to become a smoke diver. He went on a diet and hit the gym. Hard. Smith lost about 57 pounds in 2011, slimming down to 153 pounds on a five-foot-six frame.

"Neal Smith was in the best physical shape for endurance than any other time in his life," AVFD Chief William Bivens told the Houston Press. Before he left for Beaumont, Bivens said, Smith talked about how eager he was to return to the department with his new-found skills. He was also eager to prove his mettle the following weekend: He had entered into an Ironman competition in Galveston.

"I was on his case about what he was fixing to do," Bivens says. He ribbed Smith; why would a guy in his 40s want to compete in an Ironman race?

But Smith told Bivens he didn't plan on being just another competitor. "And he informed me very quickly, he's not going out there to compete," Bivens says. "He said, 'Chief, I'm going out there to win it.'"

Bivens says he's only had two firefighters attend the smoke diver course before Smith, and they never mentioned enduring the troubling techniques described in the state and federal investigations. In fact, he says, they never mentioned much of anything.

"I heard rumors that once they graduate, that they should be tight-lipped as far as this type of training because they don't want to scare other people off," he says.

That's why, Bivens claims, the state report "raised my eyebrows. I was upset about throwing the [firecrackers], I was upset about not keeping the people properly hydrated and monitoring like they should have....We have training down here all the time at my department, and there would be nothing like that....It could not happen down here. Because we do take care of our firefighters."

Penny expected that level of care from the smoke diver instructors, just like she expected them to push Smith in order to become a better firefighter. Although the state and federal reports stop short of officially blaming the class for Smith's death, his widow doesn't. In July, Penny sued the individual instructors and the professional associations behind the smoke diver training program, accusing them of gross negligence.

Pushing a firefighter to make him better is one thing, Penny says. "But what went on in this was beyond appalling."


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