His Childhood Dream Was to Be a Fireman

October 26, 2001

Leon Smith Jr. knew his calling early.

He was a third-grader when he told her in no uncertain terms he wanted to be a fireman, his mother, Irene Smith, said. Recalling how as a youngster he often disappeared, she said she always knew where to find him: hanging out in the firehouse across the street from the family's former home on Troy Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

Punishment didn't dissuade him. "I was fighting a losing battle," his mother said. So much so, her husband pleaded the case for letting him be. "At least you know he's safe there," the late Leon William Smith Sr. would tell his wife.

Since Sept. 11, Irene Smith has found emotional refuge and solace at Ladder Co. 118, the Brooklyn Heights firehouse where her only child fulfilled his childhood dream for almost 20 years. He died in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. A memorial Mass for Smith, 48, isto be celebrated at 9 a.m. Nov. 3 at the Elam International Church on Madison Street, Brooklyn.

At least twice a week, Smith's mother said, she shares home- cooked meals with the Ladder Co. 118 crew, four of whose members - including her son - died at the World Trade Center. "We eat and talk and spend time together," she said. "They give me the strength I need to go on and I give them the strength they need to keep going. All of Ladder 118 are my sons now, my extended family," she said, sobbing. "They are the greatest bunch of guys you'd ever want to meet."

Smith, who nicknamed all his fellow Ladder Co.118 crew members, went by the name of Express because he always said his beloved truck should be among the first to arrive when dispatched to a fire, his mother said.

The chauffeur at 118, Smith called his fire truck "his girlfriend." He washed it every chance he got, his mother said. And when he was off tour, his crew knew they'd better spruce up Smith's "girlfriend" before he returned or they'd hear it from him. His mother said he did practically all the mechanical work on No. 205, the truck he drove to the World Trade Center with five others aboard.

After high school, he pretty much took all the civil service exams available. While on the waiting list for about a year, he worked for the Department of Sanitation as well as the Traffic Department. The Corrections Department called first, but he decided right before his interview that it wasn't for him. "He couldn't take being closed in." The state police also called and so did the New York Police Department, right after he was hired by Co. 118. "Once he put his mind to something he followed through."

Irene Smith recalled through sobs that her son was mechanically inclined from an early age. He used to build miniature race cars with tiny working engines, she said. "He loved working with his hands and had the patience of a saint. I can see him now walking around the house with that remote control."

She can also still hear her son's boisterous laugh and conjure up images of his giving ways, Smith's mother said.

Once he came home from school without his coat, and when she asked what had happened to it, he told her he gave it to a kid who didn't have one because he had three.

She recalled how she used to take him on regular excursions to different places in the city. Occasionally, "I'd hear a knock at the door and I'd open it to see several neighborhood kids standing there, grinning. He would say, 'I invited them, Mamma.' I didn't have any money, but I couldn't refuse them."

Smith, who lost his father in December 1999 to a massive heart attack, was separated from his wife, Marilyn, the mother of his three children. His twin daughters, Tiffany and Yolanda, 18, are in their first year at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. A third daughter, Nakia, 25, and her 2-year-old son, Mekhi, live in Bedford-Stuyvesant. A student at Manhattan Community College, Nakia was preparing to attend a scheduled class on campus, just blocks from the Twin Towers, when news of the attack forced her to cancel her trip into Manhattan. Buildings on the campus were damaged by debris from the crumpled skyscrapers.

The last time his mother spoke to her son she asked him when he planned to retire. "He said, 'I can't retire until my twins get out of college. Then, maybe I'll think about it.'

"Leon was my hero," his mother said. "When my husband passed, I told Leon I lost my right arm. He said, 'No, you haven't, Mamma, I'll always be here for you.'"

-- Collin Nash (Newsday)