The fire station alarm sounded at 11:31 p.m. Flames were shooting from the first floor of a rowhouse on Capitol Hill, threatening to spread to adjacent homes. A mile away at Engine 3, Dane Smothers Jr. threw on his gear and jumped into the firetruck.
It was the rookie’s third month on the job, and this was his first fire.
Smothers, 28, had just climbed down from the engine when he was struck by a 57-foot-long ladder truck pulling up to the burning house at Eighth and F streets NE, authorities said.
The firefighter was rushed to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he was listed in critical condition as of Thursday evening. Authorities said he suffered traumatic injuries to his upper body. His family remained by his side and issued a statement requesting privacy.
Smothers was aboard the first arriving engine, which has hoses and generally stops near the front of a burning structure. The truck that struck him, Truck 7, was attempting to pass to get as close to the house as possible. Trucks have equipment used to break through doors and windows, and their crews need to work ahead of firefighters to open access for water and to allow toxic smoke to vent.
Representatives for the police and fire departments would not comment on the specifics of the investigation. The driver of Truck 7 was not identified. On Thursday, the District’s mayor and other public officials expressed guarded optimism that Smothers would pull through.
“He’s in the best hands he can be in right now,” said Dabney Hudson, the president of the D.C. firefighters union.
Smothers grew up in the District and graduated from Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter high school in Northeast Washington noted for its advanced placement and college prep classes. He worked as a clerk at a library in Anacostia for three years before he started at the fire academy and joined two uncles in the department. One uncle was at the F Street fire.
Smothers is engaged to Shambriel Metts, who works raising money to help children with autism. According to the couple’s online wedding registry, they are planning a wedding in March 2019.
“He has a quiet countenance, yet his presence is strong,” said Shakira Hemphill, who taught Smothers ninth-grade English and 10th-grade world literature. Though seemingly shy, he sat in the front row during class and drew in friends.
“He was a very committed student,” said Hemphill, now Friendship’s interim director of talent, noting traits Smothers possessed as a teenager that would be appreciated as a firefighter. “He was always on time. He was always prepared. It warmed my heart to see him mature and turn out to be everything that he had set for himself in class.”
Smothers graduated April 26 from Recruit Class 378, joining two dozen classmates at the Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet University. A video posted by the fire department on Twitter shows them walking to their seats behind a bagpiper. Smothers was assigned to Engine 3 on New Jersey Avenue NW, quartered in a century-old building near Union Station.
The last D.C. firefighter to die in the line of duty was Lt. Kevin McRae at a fire in Shaw in May 2015. Like Smothers, McRae had family on the force, a cousin who died on duty in 2007. Kevin McRae’s son, Davon McRae, became a firefighter in July.
Smothers was injured on an unusually busy night for D.C. firefighters, who at one point were on the scenes of three simultaneous fires — a fatal accident involving a car that burst into flames, the two-alarm Capitol Hill fire and another blaze in Michigan Park. At the Michigan Park fire, two D.C. police officers were injured rescuing an elderly couple, who suffered burns and smoke inhalation and were hospitalized.
On Thursday, U.S. Capitol Police officers had pizzas delivered to the Engine 3 station, and a firefighter recruit class brought doughnuts. Gregory M. Dean, chief of the D.C. fire department, was at a family wedding in Seattle and flew back to the District on the first available flight Thursday.
Inside the station, firefighters on a different shift than Smothers went to work, getting regular updates from the station captain who spent the night and most of Thursday at the hospital.
Firefighter Margie Dickey, an 18-year veteran, said one of Smothers’ uncles reached out to her after graduation and said that “he wanted to make sure we knew that they were proud of him. . . . He also said to make sure we take care of him. He said, ‘He’s a good kid.’ ”
Dickey said that Smothers didn’t tell her why he joined the department. “I was under the assumption he was ready to follow in his family’s footsteps,” she said. Noting the family history, she said, “He didn’t come into this job blind. He knew the hazards he was going to potentially face. It’s a shame he had to face them on his first fire.”
Aaron Coles, 50, who lives near Smothers’s mother in Southeast Washington, said in winter that Smothers could be seen shoveling snow side by side with neighbors for hours.
“He will give you the shirt off his back,” Coles said of the man he calls D.J. “If he sees you’re in need of help, D.J. is going to help you, no questions asked.”
Coles has known the Smothers family since they moved to the neighborhood in 2001; Smothers now lives elsewhere. He called Smothers “one of the nicest young men around here,” saying he is “quiet but his actions speak more than what his words say.”