Michelle Smith was doing what she loved — helping others — when she was hit by an out-of-control car Saturday night.
The volunteer firefighter had driven an ambulance to the scene of a motorcycle crash and was focused on the injured motorcyclist in front of her. She never saw the BMW that police say sideswiped a police cruiser before losing control and hitting her and the man she was helping.
Smith, 30, died Monday of injuries suffered in the accident, making her the first person the Delaware City Fire Company has lost in the line of duty in its 121-year history.
The injured motorcyclist, 30-year-old Edward Reiss, of New Castle, remained in critical condition in Christiana Hospital late Monday.
Delaware State Police late Monday identified the driver as Joseph Taye, 28, of Bear. Taye was arrested and taken to Troop 2 in Glasgow, state police spokesman Cpl. Jeff Whitmarsh said.
Taye was expected to be charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, driving on a revoked license, leaving the scene of a crash and failure to report a crash, Whitmarsh said. No further information on Taye was available Monday night.
“Firefighter Smith typified Delaware City Fire Company as a firefighter and as a member of the Ladies Auxiliary,” company president Wally Poppe said, adding that her extended fire family is grieving over her death. “She took great pride in her numerous contributions, including emergency response, fire prevention and community awareness.”
Smith and her Delaware City crew normally would not have responded to a call at U.S. 13 and School Lane. But on Saturday night, they were covering for Wilmington Manor Fire Company, which was holding its annual installation-of-officers ceremony, said Dave Carpenter Jr., a Delaware City Fire Company spokesman. Smith, who leaves behind a 12-year-old daughter, volunteered to work that night, he said.
A firefighter from Wilmington Manor, who did not want his name used, struggled Monday with the knowledge that it just as easily could have been him working the ambulance, and him hit and killed by that BMW.
“If I had the choice, I think I would have taken her place in a heartbeat,” he said. “I cannot stress enough to people: If you see emergency vehicle lights on the side of the road, it’s not a race to see who gets through traffic.”
Drivers need to slow down “and give us room to try and help these people in a time of misfortune,” he said.
Smith’s death is the second in six months involving an ambulance worker.
On June 17, Sussex County Paramedic Stephanie L. Callaway, 31, and an 82-year-old nursing-home patient she was transporting to Beebe Medical Center were killed when the ambulance driver swerved to avoid a deer.
“When something like this happens, it affects us all because we’re all family,” said Warren Jones, president of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen’s Association. “I have the utmost admiration and respect for all these people.”
Firefighting was a way of life for Smith, her colleagues said.
A graduate of Middletown High School, she served the fire company for more than five years and as secretary of the Delaware City Ladies Auxiliary. She was also a member of Volunteer Hose Company of Middletown.
“While we are hurting inside, we are thankful for all of the kind words and offers for assistance we have received,” Carpenter said. “Michelle was a truly positive person that specifically became a member to provide assistance to the community through fire prevention and emergency medical services.”
Smith recently was honored with the Edward McCormack Award by the Delaware State Fire Prevention Commission for excellence in fire-prevention education, Carpenter said.
On Saturday, just before 10 p.m., she was tending to Reiss, the motorcycle-crash victim, on the southbound side of U.S. 13 while a county police officer blocked the site.
The officer spotted a car speeding toward him and got back into his cruiser, with emergency lights on, to avoid being hit by the 2004 BMW 760, state police spokesman Whitmarsh said.
After sideswiping the police cruiser and hitting Smith and Reiss, the BMW driven by Taye stopped on the shoulder south of the crash, Whitmarsh said. Police say Taye got out and another car pulled up next to his, picked him up and fled.
Investigators say the car was not stolen and they have identified its owner, but she was not driving it at the time of the crash, Whitmarsh said.
“The loss of any firefighter is a huge loss for the community,” said Delaware City Vice Mayor Paul L. Parets. “The firefighters are vital in a town of this size because there is no one near us. To that extent, her death diminishes the entire community.”
County Executive Chris Coons said Smith gave her life working to save a stranger in need. He has ordered all county flags to be flown at half-staff until Smith’s funeral, arrangements for which are not yet completed.