(Photo, above, from www.dennissmith.com)
It was fifty years ago this month that Dennis Smith's classic Report from Engine Company 82 was published. Sadly, Mr. Smith did not live to mark the anniversary. He died this past January 23rd, from complications of COVID-19. He was 81. And while he came to be known as an author as much as a firefighter, Smith's career shows that a life in writing can begin unexpectedly.
Smith was working full-time as a New York City firefighter and pursuing a master's degree in communications when, in 1970, he wrote a letter to The New York Times Book Review disputing author Joyce Carol Oates’s characterization of William Butler Yeats as a universal poet rather than primarily an Irish one.
“Please remember,” Smith wrote, “that the poet, as evidenced by his writings, was Irish first.”
A magazine editor reading the letter was impressed when he noticed it was written not by a professor or critic or public intellectual, but rather a Bronx fireman. The editor contacted Smith and commissioned him to write an article about the fire department, which led to a profile of him in The New Yorker. This then led to a book contract for Smith and a $30,000 advance to write what became his definitive 1972 firefighting memoir Report From Engine Company 82, a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction that sold three million copies and turned him into a firefighting icon. Smith's writing captured and revealed the South Bronx of the era, a world of fires, crime, and urban desperation for the mainly Black and brown-skinned people who lived there. So famous did the book become that a BBC documentary crew came from London to spend time at Engine 82 and Ladder 31, filming an acclaimed hour-long documentary entitled "The Bronx is Burning." It can still be viewed on YouTube.
Smith went on to write a total of 16 books, both nonfiction and fiction. His novels include The Final Fire (1976), about two Irish-American firefighting brothers, Tom and Jerry Ritter, who get caught on opposite sides of an imagined New York City firefighter's strike with tragic consequences. He wrote about his childhood in the memoir, A Song for Mary: An Irish-American Memory (1999).
Smith was born in 1940, in Brooklyn, and he and his only brother grew up in a tenement in a working class Irish-Italian neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan. His Irish-American mother, Mary (Hogan) Smith, a telephone operator who also took in laundry when the family went on welfare, was left to raise her sons alone after Smith's father, a Scottish immigrant, was committed to an asylum. It was his mother, Smith later wrote, who instilled in him his love of books,
Smith had a difficult adolescence. After dropping out of catholic high school, he was stealing cars, fighting other neighborhood toughs and buying heroin. He was arrested and landed in front of a judge who gave him an option: jail or the military. Smith joined the Air Force and was sent to a radar station in Nevada, where he obtained his G.E.D. When his three-year enlistment was up he returned to New York, where he tested for the fire department – known as the FDNY – and was hired in 1963.
He spent his rookie years years in a slow engine company in Queens. Then, in 1966, he transferred to the city's busiest firehouse, Engine 82 and Ladder 31. Known as La Casa Grande, or “The Big House," it was located in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx, near 167th Street and Intervale Avenue. Smith described a plaque on the wall inside the firehouse with an ominous warning: "This could be the night." It was a reminder to firefighters who never know what a tour of duty can bring.
In the FDNY, the early 1970s are known as “The War Years," when large sections of the South Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and the Lower East Side, were ravaged by arsonists, crime and neglect. Fire companies in these areas responded to upwards of 10,000 alarms annually. In an age before cell phones and surveillance cameras, when someone pulled a street fire alarm box, responding firefighters never knew what to expect: a blazing building with people trapped, a broken water pipe, a gas leak, a shooting or stabbing victim, an overdose, a vehicle accident, a maternity case, or a false alarm. Through it all, Dennis Smith captured the pathos and humanity with his firefighter's eyes and writer’s eloquence.
“I have climbed a thousand ladders, and crawled Indian fashion down as many halls into a deadly nightshade of smoke, a whirling darkness of black poison, knowing all the while that the ceiling may fall, or the floor collapse, or a hidden explosive ignite,” Smith wrote. “I have watched friends die, and I have carried death in my hands. . . . Yet, I know that I could not do anything else with such a great sense of accomplishment.”
In 1976, Smith started Firehouse Magazine. He left the fire department in 1981, and continued to write and edit full-time. In 1991, he sold Firehouse for a reported $7 million. Though less personal and more corporate than when Smith edited it, the magazine remains a leading fire service journal.
Smith was also the founding chairman of the New York City Fire Museum. He was instrumental in helping acquire for its home the three-story former Manhattan firehouse of Engine Co.30 in SoHo. It is today one of the city’s top museums. Smith was also a past president of the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club, which moved from Manhattan to the South Bronx, and a chairman of the New York Academy of Art. He also sat on or testified before numerous city, state and federal and congressional safety committees and boards, and won many awards for his work championing related causes.
Smith donned his firefighting gear once more when he returned to volunteer after the World Trade Center attack in 2001, where he and other active and retired firefighters and cops worked for months on the cleanup and recovery efforts. He later developed cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which his family attributed to toxic dust inhaled at the site. It is a fate shared by hundreds of rescue and construction workers who became ill and died working in the aftermath of 9/11. From that experience Smith wrote Report From Ground Zero (2002), which ranked number two on the New York Times bestseller list for many weeks.
In addition to being a writer and editor, Smith also became a certified financial consultant and played several musical instruments, including the bagpipes. He traveled 0ften to Ireland and was considered an expert on Irish folklore.
But in his heart Smith was always a fireman and never forgot his origins on the hardscrabble streets of New York City. Speaking on the "Gettin' Salty" firefighter podcast the summer before his death, he said as an adult he was able to handle any of life's challenges because "I am FDNY trained."
Smith is survived by his ex wife and five children.
Beyond them, perhaps his legacy can be measured by the many men and women who say they were inspired to become firefighters after reading Dennis Smith's books. And maybe the fact that because of him, Engine 82 remains arguably the most famous firehouse in the world.