“Please remember,” Mr. Smith wrote, “that the poet, as his writings testify, was Irish first.”
Through the back door, he was contacted by an editor at McCall’s magazine, was featured in an interview with The New Yorker, was commissioned to write an article for True magazine for $1,500, and received an advance of $30,000 for his book project on Engine Company 82.
His marriage to Patricia Kearney in 1962 ended in divorce in 1985. In addition to their son Sean, he is survived by two other sons, Brendan and Dennis; two daughters, Deirdre Smith-Wisniewski and Aislinn Falzarano; and 11 grandchildren.
He remained with the department until 1981, returning as a volunteer after the 2001 World Trade Center attack where he worked for months on the cleanup. He helped recover the body of a fellow firefighter’s son, Lee Ielpi, in December. He later developed cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which his family attributed to dust inhaled at the site.
In a Times opinion essay in 1971, Mr Smith recalled his enthusiasm for becoming a firefighter: “I would play to the cheers of excited hordes – climbing ladders, pulling hoses and rescuing children from the waltz of the burning masked devil. . I paused and fed the fires of my ego – tearful mothers hugged me, columnists elated me with lofty phrases and mayors pinned ribbons to my chest.
After eight years, he wrote, the romantic visions had faded.
“I’ve climbed a thousand ladders and crawled through as many halls of Indian fashion in a deadly nightshade of smoke, a swirling darkness of black poison, knowing all the time that the ceiling may fall, or the floor crumble, or a blaze hidden explosive,” Mr Smith added. “I have seen friends die and I have carried death in my hands. It is with good reason that Christians have chosen fire as a metaphor for hell.
“There is no excitement, no romance, in being so close to death,” he wrote, later adding, “Yet I know I could do nothing else with such a great sense of accomplishment.”
He remembers a fire in a building in which an 18-month-old girl died. The tearful would-be rescuer, a fellow firefighter, sat next to him on the front porch, holding the body and repeating over and over, “Poor little thing, she never had a chance.”
To which Mr Smith wrote: ‘I wish now that every man who intends to stand for the next firefighter’s test could have seen the humanity, the sympathy and the sadness in those eyes, for they explained why we let’s fight the fires.”