An emergency call in February 2011 might have seemed routine to Jeff Smith and the three other firefighters in his company.
“Little did they know that their lives and the lives of several citizens would change less than two minutes later,” Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said Thursday.
As driver of Pumper One, Smith would suffer a career ending injury on that Feb. 15 that cost him part of a leg but his actions would earn him the department’s highest honor — the Medal of Valor Award.
He received the award Thursday at a special ceremony in his honor at Kansas City Fire Headquarters.
“As Pumper One traveled east on Red Bridge Road with emergency lights and sirens operating, they witnessed an oncoming vehicle pulling to the right and yielding the right of way — several other vehicles did the same thing” Dyer said.
But a westbound vehicle driven by a young mother swerved around the vehicles and into the path of the pumper.
“Smith observed the vehicle approaching and he knew he would not be able to stop the fire apparatus in time to avoid a head on accident,” Dyer said. “He was faced with two choices — collide head-on with the oncoming vehicle, resulting in severe damage to that vehicle and injuries to those occupants, or to swerve to the right immediately.”
Smith swerved. But the oncoming vehicle still hit the rear of the pumper, sending it out of control into a utility pole and then into several trees.
While his fellow crew members were uninjured, Smith suffered severe injuries and doctors had to remove a part of his lower leg.
“In a split second and the decision he made on that day, over 22 years of dedicated and committed service to the citizens of Kansas City and KCFD came to an abrupt end,” Dyer said.
Smith’s “heroic and gallant actions” were credited with saving the lives of the mother and her young child.
Smith said he was “very, very overwhelmed.”
He said he owes a lot to the people who trained him because without that training, he said, he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did.
“I just could not hit her head on — not at the speed we were going,” he said. “I kind of know what the outcome would have been if we had hit head on, but I just couldn’t do it. I think I took the best option.”
Smith feels that he was being watched over during the crash.
“There was the truck, then there was God and then there was the tree,” he said. “God was in between me and that tree.”
Initially, Smith didn’t realize how bad he had been injured. His captain had to stay inside the damaged cab of the pumper.
Smith, who worked for Kansas City’s industrial waste division for 3 ½ years before becoming a firefighter, said he had always had a curiosity and interest in firefighting as a career
“I think it’s like every boy’s dream to put on that uniform and to be a firefighter,” Smith said.
Smith said he is still healing and recovering from his injuries. For now, he is focusing on rehab and family, including attending his daughter’s track meets.
“In the 22 years that I had been a firefighter, I worked with some of the best . . . I loved the job,” he said. “I have no regrets. If I had 20 more years, I would give them 20 more years.”