Three weeks after he fell through the floor while trying to extinguish a house fire, severely burning his hands, back, arms, and legs, firefighter David Smiley Jr. is upbeat, resilient — and eager to get back to work.
“I’m trying to stay strong,” said Smiley, 23, a third-generation firefighter who sustained second- and third-degree burns in mid-March while working as the rescue captain for the Minquas Fire Company in Newport, Del. “Trying to get past it."
It was a harrowing experience, to be sure, even for the son of a fire chief who had long dreamed of a career battling blazes.
Smiley, of West Chester, was working to put out a fast-burning fire in a two-story home in a Mill Creek, Del., home on March 14 when the burning second floor gave way under his feet. He dangled from the rafters for nearly a minute, his family said, before shimmying out of his jacket and air pack and dropping six feet to the first floor. The fire burned the gloves off his hands before traveling to his neck and ears.
“Everything happened so fast," said Fire Chief Joe Dierolf. Had Smiley not managed to escape so quickly, the chief said, his injuries might have been far worse.
The blaze was later deemed accidental.
Smiley was rushed to Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where he underwent skin grafts for his injuries, said his parents, Lynn and David Smiley Sr., as they sat in a hospital conference room on a recent day, surrounded by their three other children.
“Emotionally, there is a lot of trauma there. There’s no doubt about it in my mind,” Smiley Sr. said as he described the terrifying incident. “Why wouldn’t there be?”
As Smiley lay wrapped in gauze in his hospital bed, with burns covering much of his body, his family wondered if he would want to abandon the job.
Smiley had started fighting fires at age 14, working as a volunteer in West Chester and following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He later joined the fire department in Lebanon, Pa., and also volunteered with the Minquas fire squad. But in nearly a decade of firefighting, he had never before been engulfed in the fury of flames.
In an interview, Smiley said he was determined to return to the career he’d dreamed of ever since he was a kid, dressing up in firefighter garb while his father went to work as the chief of the West Chester Fire Department.
While he was in the hospital, visitors — mostly firefighters — poured in every day, his father said. Others showed their support by donating money for the firefighter’s medical bills.
“He’s probably seen over 200 people," Smiley Sr. said of his son. “The burn center told us a lot of people come in here and don’t want to see anybody, but David’s like, ‘I want to see everybody.’ He won’t let anybody go away. Even when he gets home, I hope people keep it going.”
For the next six months, his family said, Smiley will recuperate from home and start physical therapy. For that time, he won’t be able to fight fires.
Instead, Smiley said, he will resume his hobby of taking pictures of fires until he is allowed to return to light duty.
“I’ll find something to get into," he said. “I’ve had my rough times over the past two weeks, but now I’m at peace with everything’s that happened.”