Investigation into firefighters' deaths begins

April 13, 2009 3:52:31 PM PDT
It was a somber day for Houston firefighters as they honor two of their own who died battling a house fire on Easter morning. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Shortly after noon Monday, the bodies of Captain James Harlow and probationary firefighter Damion Hobbs were transported from the medical examiner's office, while their colleagues stood at attention. Both men died after being trapped inside the home.

Investigators from several agencies made a thorough sweep of the gutted house on Oak Vista near DeLeon in southeast Houston Monday. They were there all day with representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, the state fire marshals' office, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, as well as investigators from the Houston Fire Department's arson division. It's their task to find out every detail of the fire.

While there is no official word on how the fire started, neighbors offer what the homeowner told them at the time of time of the fire.

"She had one of those lights in the closet that when you open the door, it comes on, close the door, it goes off, and she claims that the closet door was left open and it caught linens on fire that were stored in there," said neighbor Kathy Sudell.

"The wind was blowing very hard. The trees were all moving around and they came right around the back of the bayou, so it was sort of like a chimney effect," said neighbor Tom Proctor. "Some of the people we spoke to seem to think there was back draft in there because the top of it just erupted."

The Houston Fire Department will not comment on any details of the fire that began early Sunday morning, including how it started. Captain Harlow, a 30-year veteran of the department and rookie firefighter Hobbs, 29, were inside the burning home and did not make it outside. They both died.

"We believe there's many ways to disseminate information," said HFD Chief Phil Boriske. "We can do it fast or we can do it accurate. We are going to do it accurate, the right way."

The firefighters union focuses on the enormous amount of planning to coordinate a memorial service in which thousands of firefighters from around the country are expected to attend. Even thought the homeowner, Joyce Hale, didn't want to talk on camera, she told me she thinks of the fallen firefighters as heroes. So do neighbors.

'Its unfortunate that it did happened," said neighbor Melissa Casarez. "It's even more unfortunate it happened on Easter, on a holiday."

Both Captain Harlow and firefighter Hobbs were stationed at Houston Fire Station 26. It was an emotional scene at the station Monday afternoon as the two ambulances carrying their bodies stopped in front of the station. Captain Harlow has been at the station since 2004. Firefighter Hobbs, who had just begun his firefighting career, was assigned to Station 26 just over a month ago.

The fallen firefighters

Damion Hobbs was only one month into his dream job. The rookie firefighter survived a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq and when he returned in July 2007, he started classes at the Houston Fire Department academy. The 30-year-old graduated from Alvin High School and much of his family still lives in the Alvin area.

James Harlow, 50, had been with the Houston Fire Department for 30 years. He was named captain at Fire Station 26 in 2004. Harlow, who lived in Pasadena, is being described as a devoted husband and loving father and grandfather.

Also killed in the line of duty

The last firefighters killed in the line of duty was Grady Burke, who died on February 19, 2005. He was killed in house fire started by man reportedly trying to light a crack pipe.

Kevin Kulow died April 4, 2004. He was killed in a fire at the El Festival Ballroom.

Captain Jay Jahnke died October 13, 2001. He was killed fighting a high rise fire in Galleria area.

Lewis Mayo and Kim Smith died February 14, 2000. They were killed fighting fire at a McDonald's in SW Houston.

How you can help

If you want to help the families of the firefighters, you can make a donation to "The 100 Club".

Just mail your donation to the Survivor's Fund to the following:

    The 100 Club Incorporated
    1233 West Loop South, Suite 1250
    Houston, Texas 77027.

The organization helps the families of police officers and firefighters who were killed in the line of duty.

The Last Alarm Club of Houston was founded in 1977 to help families of Houston fire fighters killed or seriously injured in the line of duty. They will be assisting the Harlow and Hobbs families. Contributions are welcomed.

More information is available at www.lastalarmclub.org or by calling 713-223-9166.

- Statement from Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association (HPFFA)

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Houston Fire Department | Cpt. James Harlow and Firefighter Damien Hobbs | Houston Professional Firefighters


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