Lenoir losing 58 years of firefighting experience

Two retiring captains reflect on highs, lows of riding the big red trucks
Mar. 19, 2013 @ 08:19 AM

Any firefighter has a big story to tell.

Even from two retiring fire captains with a combined nearly 60 years of experience, the details of a large fire or an animal rescue are recalled with ease. After all, when a third of a firefighter’s life is spent swapping tales with their comrades in the long down-time hours at the firehouse, the memories are never far away.

Capt. Charles “Bart” Severt remembers one Christmas Eve house fire, where a 5-year-old boy tugged at his leg and said, “Mr. Fireman, please don’t let my Christmas presents and tree burn up.”

The boy's eyes widened at the sight of Severt and another fireman hauling the tree and the presents out of the house. The back of the house and a bedroom, where the fire started, were destroyed. The family eventually moved back in after the house was remodeled.

Capt. Sam Smith remembers an expensive talking bird that got out of the house and decided to perch high on a nearby power line. Firefighters were called to retrieve the suddenly free bird, just as people sometimes call them about a cat stuck in a tree. Standing below, they brainstormed ways to get the bird down from the wire.

“I remembered birds don’t fly well if they’re wet,” Smith said in an interview at Firehouse No. 1. “We shot the water up into the air and let it fall on the bird like rain. The bird tried to fly, but he just glided to the ground instead.”

Severt and Smith are hanging up their fire hats for the last time on March 28. Smith has two years' seniority on Severt, having been hired by the Lenoir Fire Department in 1983. Chief Ken Briscoe was a training officer, and Smith his first recruit. The good-natured hazing began immediately.

“I would send him across the street to EMS for a hose stretcher,” a non-existent piece of equipment, Briscoe said, “or tell him to go get the key to the basement." There was no basement. "We had him ask the (then) chief for the light bulb grease.”

Of course, grease intended for light bulbs was nowhere to be found.

But word would get around and, after a few years and a few more recruits, Briscoe and the guys would have to find more creative ways to break in the rookies.

Smith and Severt would take different paths over the years. Smith became a fire educator but still goes on calls. Severt feels born to fight fires.

“As a kid, I always loved the fire trucks,” he said. “It was always a goal to be a fireman.”

Severt played football at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., but soon realized the NFL wouldn’t be calling. He became a Lenoir firefighter in 1985. The long hours in between calls are etched in his memory. Those were the times lifelong bonds were formed.

“We’re a brotherhood,” Severt said. “I will miss that tremendously.”

Like Severt, Smith was fascinated by the big red trucks and the stories they held. And the Dalmation that rode along for the ride.

“My dad knew a lot of officers who have since retired,” Smith said. “I would tag along. They mesmerized me. I remembered the fire dog, Smokey the Dalmation. If he didn’t know you, you didn’t pet him.”

He drove a tractor-trailer for Newton Transportation and a volunteer firefighter. Two firefighter friends encouraged him to apply to be a Lenoir firefighter, and he was hired. In those days, firefighters still rode on the tail boards and wore yellow fire suits made of canvas, and fiberglass hats with a brim on the front.

As the years went by, technology made fighting fires safer, but the tragedies didn’t stop. He remembers the Singer plant fire of 2009, which covered an entire downtown-area block between Harper and College avenues. The vacant facility was still burning more than five hours after it started, and flames could be seen five miles away. Smith was among 60 firefighters who spent a week dousing flare-ups there.

Sept. 11, 2001, also stands out.

"We had just run a fake alarm call, and someone said to turn on the TV,” Smith said. “It was just before the second (World Trade Center) tower fell. We all knew in our hearts we lost a lot of firefighters that day. It affected us all. There was an eerie calm in the fire house.”

Smith also recalls a pit bull dog that once climbed a tree to try to get a cat that was about 15 feet up. The cat scampered down with ease. The dog had to be rescued.

Smith’s efforts to educate the community about fire safety not only earned him the distinction of being the only firefighter in Caldwell County to receive the Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year award in 2009, but to actually save a life.

“We started a smoke alarm program and canvassed the area,” Smith said. “We put up a smoke alarm in a house. About six weeks later, the house caught on fire. The lady (who lived there) said if not for the smoke alarm, she would have died.”

Lenoir City Manager Lane Bailey has nothing but high praise for both Smith and Severt.

“Both are great professionals,” Bailey said. “Severt was more an the operational side of things. Smith would be the one to call me two or three times in the mornings about events. They are both very dedicated to the citizens of Lenoir. They will both be missed.”

Smith deflects praise and instead speaks glowingly about the City of Lenoir, where he has served for 30 years.

“I thank God for directing my path to the fire service,” Smith said. “I work for the best fire department in the state. It’s a privilege to wear the patch and the badge.”