By Clarence Williams
The D.C. fire department has concluded that the positioning of equipment during a fire and the inexperience of a rookie contributed to a 2017 incident that severely injured the young firefighter when he was pinned between an engine and a ladder truck.
The findings have come after an investigation of the Aug. 2 accident at a Capitol Hill house fire that injured firefighter Dane Smothers Jr., who was still in his probationary period after less than a year on the job and had limited experience with active fires, the report stated.
The review committee that wrote the report found that the placement of fire vehicles at the scene created blind spots and pinch points that contributed to a lapse in “situational awareness” and left “very little margin for human error.”
The 60-page report described events and actions that left Smothers, 29, clinging to life for days in intensive care after his lung was removed, among other surgeries, and with long-term injuries, particularly to his left hand.
Smothers, who grew up in Southeast Washington, was pinned as he stood in what roughly was estimated to be a two-foot gap between the back of the engine truck in which he had been riding, which was stopped, and a slowly moving ladder truck arriving at the fire call, the report said. Smothers’s job was to run hose from his engine to units battling the rowhouse fire at 809 F St. NE.
Smothers rode on Engine 3 and arrived before Ladder Truck 7 as units converged at about 11:30 p.m. Aug. 2 at the intersection of 8th and F streets NE.
The report determined that Engine 3 had stopped to connect to a hydrant in the southeast corner of the intersection and Smothers had exited from the engine’s right side.
The ladder truck was turning into the fire scene when it hit Smothers, the investigation found.
The ladder truck driver and the tillerman — who steers the back end of the truck — told investigators they did not see Smothers, due to blind spots. A dashboard camera on the ladder truck was not functioning, the report said.
The tillerman yelled “stop, stop, stop,” thinking the ladder truck had struck the engine truck, the report said, and did not realize that Smothers had been hit until the ladder truck backed up and Smothers fell from the space between the two vehicles.
The investigation was aimed at determining how the incident unfolded, what factors contributed to it and what measures should be recommended to prevent similar occurrences. The report does not name individuals.
“All of the findings and recommendations in the Report are being reviewed and any and all actions that can be made will be made so that we are doing all that we can to make sure that something like this won’t happen again,” Fire Chief Gregory Dean said in a statement Friday upon releasing the report.
No fire department members face discipline for the incident, department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said.
The department declined to identify the firefighters who operated the vehicles in the collision.
The Smothers family referred questions to their lawyers, William Lightfoot and Kelly Fisher. The lawyers said they are working to check the department’s account against information in the police investigation and that collected by the lawyers from witnesses.
Lightfoot said the fire department report should have been completed by the end of 2017.
“Because the report just came out, I’m trying to compare the accuracy of this late report with information collected closer in time to the incident,” Lightfoot said. “This report leaves many unanswered questions, all of which we continue to explore in litigation.”
There appears to be a discrepancy between the fire department’s report and two D.C. police reports obtained by Lightfoot, who shared them with The Washington Post.
The fire department account said that Smothers and another firefighter “moved into the gap between” Engine 3 and Ladder Truck 7 while the ladder truck was briefly stopped. And moving into that position, “diminished the ability of the Truck Driver and Tillerman to observe them and to safely proceed.”
The police reports — one completed the day after the collision and the other a follow-up by D.C. police’s major-crash unit dated Feb. 14 — say Smothers “began to retrieve the hose at the back of Engine #3 at which time Ladder Truck #7 was traveling northbound on 8th Street N.E.”
Maggiolo said the committee did not have access to D.C. police reports on the collision. One member of the fire department review committee is a detective who signed the Feb. 14 police report. The fire department committee interviewed Smothers for its report, Maggiolo said.
Lightfoot said Smothers was interviewed while he still was hospitalized and when his mouth was wired.
In making broad recommendations, the report noted that the problem of “inactive or unresponsive dash cameras is systemic within the Department.” The committee also noted that the department needs to establish policy on how to investigate similar incidents and preserve scenes for investigators.
Both drivers for Engine 3 and Ladder Truck 7, as well as the tillerman for the ladder truck, were not technicians — which is the job category typically assigned for drivers of vehicles — although all were qualified to operate those vehicles, the report said. The ladder truck driver joined the department in October 2000; the tillerman started in March 2004.
When Smothers arrived at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, trauma surgeons found him in shock and had to revive him after his heart stopped.
Multiple surgeries followed to remove a lung, repair broken bones, and address severe spinal damage and traumatic brain injury.
Smothers remains in rehabilitation. Nerve damage prevents him from using his left hand.
“Regardless of what’s in this report and regardless of his injuries, D.J.’s plan is to resume his career in public safety. This was the love of his life,” Lightfoot said. “Hopefully, from this report, the D.C. fire department will improve their activities and improve training.”