By Joe Rubino
BOULDER, Colo. — Fire has taken much from Duaine "Whitey" Smith over the course of his 91 years.
At age 10, he lost his father to a fire that also claimed the family home in Ames, Iowa.
On Jan. 26, 1982, his young son, Scott Smith, was one of two firefighters killed in a Boulder Fire Department training exercise held in an old chicken coop near the corner of Hawthorn Avenue and 15th Street. The exercise went horribly wrong when highly combustible fiberboard ceiling tiles in the coop were ignited, killing 30-year-old engineer William Duran and 21-year-old Scott Smith, who had joined the department just three months prior.
Whitey Smith's most recent encounter with fire did not result in loss of life, though he did lose almost everything he owned when his mobile home burned to the ground about six weeks ago. The trailer, located in the Boulder Meadows mobile home park near 19th Street and Violet Avenue, was destroyed after Smith crawled under it and attempted to use a blowtorch to thaw his frozen pipes one frigid January morning.
Members of the Boulder firefighters union, the International Firefighters Local 900, have stepped up since the blaze to help Smith recover from his setback.
Boulder fire inspector Manuel Sedillo is a 35-year veteran of the department and serving president of the Local 900. He responded to the scene the day Scott Smith was killed in 1982.
Sedillo said once crews on the scene of Whitey Smith's trailer fire figured out who he was, the union sprung into action to support him in his time of need, passing the hat to all department staff and quickly providing him with some cash to help him get by.
"The Local 900 wanted to do more than just what we were able to collect," Sedillo said. "We had a special union meeting and we voted to provide whatever Whitey needed up to $10,000."
After alternately staying with his son, Phil, in Thornton and friend Richard Ehret, Smith recently moved into an apartment on Baker Street in Longmont. Smith, who made his living as a painter and still works when he can, painted the place himself, but it was with the help of Boulder firefighters that he was able to fill it with furniture.
"The fire department furnished everything in here," Smith said as he sat in his living room Saturday. "A new bed back there, the TV, this couch, the dining room set. Everything in here came through the fire department."
In particular, Smith singled out the efforts of Boulder Fire Lt. Jay Ruggeri, who over the course of the past week or so has helped him and Ehret pick up items for the apartment, and even helped hook up the TV so the two friends could enjoy some Saturday afternoon basketball.
"I don't think this would have ever gotten started if it hadn't of been for Jay Ruggeri getting quite interested," Smith said. "He went with us for about six or seven hours picking up all this stuff last week and he's still doing other things."
Smith recalled that after his son's death in 1982 he visited Washington, D.C., to see Scott Smith's name added to the national firefighters memorial. Ruggeri, then only a few years into his career, accompanied him on that trip, he said.
One of the very few things that was salvaged from Smith's trailer was a picture frame with photos from that memorial trip.
For the firefighters that have known Smith for so long, helping him now is not about being generous, so much as supporting a family member.
"It's a lot more than just a job," Sedillo said. "All these guys and gals that have worked for the fire department, they are always part of us. Whenever we hear there is a need we rally around them and do everything we can, and this is no different.
"We've always felt like he was part of us through his son," Sedillo added. "He is a member of our family."
Ehret, who after meeting Smith several years ago at a World War II memorial in Washington has become a good friend and bowling buddy, has had a front row seat for the fire department's efforts.
"I think they did a tremendous job," Ehret said. "They really supported Whitey in every way."
Smith said he never expected the outpouring of support that has come from local firefighters in the wake of January's blaze.
"They have gone overboard big time," he said. "I would have never suspected this if I lived a hundred more years. I would have never anticipated the generosity."
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