For nearly a decade, Dane Smothers Jr. fixated on becoming a D.C. firefighter.
And he stuck with it, despite hurdles.
As he was finishing high school in 2008, Smothers Jr. applied to the department’s cadet training program, thinking that was the quickest path. But the department shuttered the program for that year.
He entered college and studied fire science for a year, before the university told him the major was only for active firefighters.
He shifted briefly to computer science, worked at a Starbucks and got a job at a city library — and badgered an uncle who was a city firefighter, asking when the department would be hiring again.
When applications opened in 2015, interest was so high it swamped the department’s website, but Smothers Jr. stayed online for three hours to submit his name.
When he went for his written exam at the convention center, the line to get in was blocks-long. He waited it out.
He sweated the physical tests and tackled the five- or six-inch-thick training manual and in April 2017 put on his dress-blue uniform as a new academy graduate.
“Man, that felt like I hit the lottery,” Smothers Jr. recalls.
He wore that uniform only once. Mere months into the firefighting job, his dream career nearly killed him.
The night was Aug. 2, 2017.
The injuries that sidelined him didn’t come at a burning home.
They came when Smothers Jr., in full gear, was at the rear of his stopped fire engine reaching for a hose to hustle to the house fire. He was hit by an arriving ladder truck that turned and pinned him between the two fire vehicles.
The accident ravaged the 29-year-old’s body. And the department’s investigation that followed has infuriated him.
In a report, investigators said Smothers Jr.’s inexperience contributed to the calamity.
But Smothers Jr. contends that being a rookie is irrelevant: He was at a stationary vehicle with his back turned when he was struck.
“It’s really hurtful to me to even bring up the fact that I’m a rookie,” Smothers Jr. said. “It doesn’t matter if I was a rookie or a 20-year veteran, the engine was going to hit regardless and I was going to get pinned regardless of my experience level.”
Smothers Jr. had to be resuscitated at a trauma center. He lost a lung, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and had surgeries on his spine, femur and jaw. Staples held parts of him together for months and he had to learn to walk again.
He is legally blind in his left eye and his left hand still doesn’t work like it should. Grafts of nerve tissue may help restore 60 percent of its use but he also has been fitted for a robotic arm to support that hand and help him hold a dish or write on a clipboard.
“I was in the prime of my life, physically fit. I could hang out all night, I was in great shape, had my career lined up, had my own car. Everything was going right for me,” Smothers Jr. said of his transformation from a skinny teenager dreaming of his ideal job to an independent man muscular from weightlifting and living the dream. “That’s what kind of gets me down a lot sometimes.”
Smothers Jr. slept deeply in his firehouse bunk at Engine Company 3 on New Jersey Avenue NW, sacked out in a navy fire department T-shirt and his skivvies.
Shortly before 11 p.m., the house alarm blared and he shot upright to see it flashing red, a signal that they were being called to a fire, not to a medical emergency.
A rowhouse on F Street Northeast was burning.
Smothers Jr. slid down the pole to the vehicle bay, jumped into the rear passenger side and stepped into his firefighting gear at the seat.
Smothers Jr.’s job was as a lineman, one who pulls hose from the engine to a fire. The firefighter sitting to his left was his layout man, who ensures the hose unfurls cleanly.
As the engine pulled up to stage at a corner near the house fire, Smothers Jr. remembers being in “go mode.”
The sergeant ordered him to grab the 400-foot line and Smothers Jr. hopped out of the right side of the vehicle, walked directly to the back and climbed a bumper at the rear of the engine, he said, to reach the hose high above his head.
The next thing he remembers is feeling his body shudder with pain. He collapsed to the pavement and everything went dark.
“I’ve never been struck by lightning, but if I was, it would feel like that,” Smothers Jr. recalled. “It’s like you feel everything instantly, and then, you’re out.”
He woke up in a hospital room where his father explained where he was and began to ask his son if he recalled what had happened.
Smothers Jr. didn’t know the details but sensed he had gone through something bad.
“When they said I got hit, I knew someone ran me over,” Smothers Jr. said.
Dane Smothers Sr. said “D.J.,” as he calls his son, knew from the time he was very young that firefighting was what he wanted to do.
Growing up in Southeast in the family’s Seventh Street home and later on Varney Street, his middle of three children talked about that ambition, through his years at Friendship Collegiate Academy in Northeast and later at the University of the District of Columbia and ITT Technical Institute.
His father bolstered him when Smothers Jr. worried that the weight of fire academy homework might overwhelm him.
“This book had to be five or six inches thick,” Smothers Sr. said, remembering when his son finally entered the fire academy in the fall of 2016. “I told him ‘you better go downstairs and start studying.’ And he did. Every night he went into that basement and studied” rather than hanging out with his buddies or a girlfriend.
“The day he graduated was literally the happiest day of all our lives. He worked for that,” Smothers Sr. said. “It was one of those dream-come-true moments.”
Smothers Jr. has held on to his love for the job — and appreciation for fellow firefighters like the ones who brought meals, wrote letters from across the country and helped redesign his father’s house in Capitol Heights when no one knew if Smothers Jr. would end up in a wheelchair for life.
But he and his father are angry about the department’s 60-page accident investigation report.
The report, released in June, said two factors contributed to Smothers Jr.’s being pinned: his limited experience at fire scenes and the placement of fire vehicles that created blind spots and pinch points and left “very little margin for human error.”
The investigation did not name anyone involved, including Smothers Jr., the driver of Truck 7, which is the ladder truck that hit him, or the tillerman who steered the back of Truck 7.
“Considering I’m the one who has the short end of the stick with injury, the missing body parts, I just feel like it’s an indirect blame, pretty much,” Smothers Jr. said. “They didn’t at all fault or even hint at the drivers. . . . No fault on their part at all.”
A fire department spokesman said no one faced disciplinary action for the accident.
The report appears to give varying accounts of the moments of the collision, in one section saying Smothers Jr. and the firefighter laying out hose stepped into a gap between their engine and the ladder truck.
But in a later section, the report says the layout man alone squeezed through the gap and moved past Smothers Jr., who already was at the back of the engine.
“Where did they get that information from? Who said I moved between two vehicles? Because I wasn’t interviewed on that part, and I sure didn’t give that account. I didn’t say I was moving. My back was turned when he made the turn,” Smothers Jr. said of the striking ladder truck.
At the time the report was released, fire department officials said Smothers Jr. had been interviewed by investigators.
Smothers Jr. said the only conversation he had was while he was heavily medicated in the hospital and had his jaw wired shut, which limited his speech to only a few words at a time. Officials from the fire department and the D.C. police, whose names Smothers Jr. and his father said they do not know, arrived at his room for what Smothers Jr. said was cursory, not probing, questioning.
“It was basically, ‘do you remember,’ and ‘what do you remember’ ” Smothers Jr. said.
Despite the department’s public statements of support for Smothers Jr., the Smothers family said D.C. Fire Department Chief Gregory Dean has declined to meet with them about the investigation report.
“I think this report is, for lack of a better word, doctored,” Smothers Sr. said. “Go back to the drawing board and come up with something that resembles the truth, because this ain’t it.”
Dean said he has met with the family but declined to discuss specifics of what was said or the Smothers family’s objections to the investigation’s conclusions.
“I understand the family has their concerns about the report. We’ve taken the report and are looking at all the findings and recommendations and trying to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” Dean said.
Smothers Jr.’s fiancee got a call at about 1 a.m. on the night he was hit from one of his classmates from the academy telling her what hospital to head to.
Having Shambriel Metts say yes to marrying him had been one more part of his life that had fallen into place after he joined the fire department.
Metts, once she understood what she was hearing in the call, “had a panic attack and fell out of the bed,” she said.
“He’s the love of my life and I felt like I lost him. I felt numb, I couldn’t be consoled,” Metts said. Until she saw him and then she smiled, despite the grave injuries.
“He had tubes coming out of his mouth, out of his throat, he had tubes coming out of his side. He really had tubes coming out of everywhere,” she recalled. “Even with that, I still was happy because he was alive.”
For the first weeks after the accident, his sister Dainese Smothers, 22, a biology major at Bowie State University, was so distracted by thoughts of her brother that she moved in a haze , losing a wallet, having two car accidents.
Smothers Jr.’s four-month hospital stay started at the trauma center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, shifted to its intensive-care unit and wound up at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, where he had to learn how to feed himself and to walk again.
“I was like a baby deer or something; My legs were just as wobbly and could barely move. I was scared to stand up,” Smothers Jr. recalled.
He left the hospital needing a neck brace and a helmet to safeguard him in case of stumbles. Those devices are gone, but he still suffers daily migraines from his head injury. Once an obsessive nail biter, the fingernails on his left hand are long because his lower forearm and hand are immobile due to nerve damage from the accident.
Smothers Jr. has had two grafts to try to restore movement and has been tested for the robotic arm.
Surgeries have produced some new twitching in his shoulder and triceps that makes him optimistic.
“He’s very persistent. Mentally I know he’s very, very strong. You have to be, to be where he is now after having to go through something like that,” Dainese Smothers said.
Smothers Jr. has been back to the corner of the collision just once — in March — with his father and the firefighter who drove his engine that night.
His eyes, pained and appearing confused, scanned the intersection searching for anything that might seem familiar.
Dean, the fire chief, has discussed administrative jobs that Smothers Jr. could take when he feels ready to return to work. He has one year of injury leave until he needs to make a decision.
Dean said he was not sure what the ideal fit would be, but was committed to helping Smothers Jr. find a path that works, if possible.
“We as a department continue to consider Dane a member of this organization,” Dean said. “He got hurt performing a service for this community. We want to work with him and make sure he wants to be a part of this organization.”
Smothers Jr. said he cherishes the joy he felt in being at the firehouse and the bond with other emergency responders. But those emotions now exist alongside a sense that he was betrayed by the accident findings.
“This is what I wanted to be, this is what I wanted to do. I care deeply for the position of firefighter,” Smothers Jr. said. “The physical pain can be dealt with. What sticks out the most is the mental, the psychological effect.”
When Smothers Jr. goes for walks with Max — his new beagle puppy companion — or to a rehab workout he proudly sports a cap or T-shirt emblazoned with a fire department logo.
Each night, he sleeps beneath a quilt, stitched for him when he was hospitalized by one of his academy instructors, with patches from fire units across the city.
And back in a locker at the Engine Co. 3 firehouse, the dress-blue uniform hangs, pristine.