Houston mourns 4 firefighters killed in motel blaze

A memorial set up at the site of the deadly fire in southwest Houston that claimed the lives of four firefighters
May 31, 2013 10:00:00 PM PDT
The city of Houston is still shocked one day after a massive motel fire killed four firefighters, making it the deadliest day in the history of the Houston Fire Department.

Flags remain at half-staff at the Houston Fire Department and across our area as the city mourns Friday's tragic losses.

The fire started just after noon inside a restaurant at the Southwest Inn motel on the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft.

Eyewitnesses tell us the fire seems to have started in a restaurant located at the rear of the motel. One employee of the motel says someone came running from there yelling about a fire and screaming for help just before she saw flames. That employee knocked on doors and windows to try and get guests out.

Flames spread to the entire motel, blanketing the area in thick smoke. The flames quickly spread out of control and soon it was a five-alarm fire.

Firefighters got the flames under control about two hours later. The building was reduced to rubble and in it were some of the brave firefighters who were trying to help.

Officials confirmed Saturday that a collapse occurred and resulted in four firefighter deaths. Three firefighters were killed at the scene while the fourth died at a hospital, according to the mayor's office and local medical examiner.

The mayor asked for prayers for the fallen firefighters. HFD identified them as:

  • Captain EMT Matthew Renaud, 35, of Engine 51. He began his career with the Houston Fire Department in October of 2001 and in addition to Fire Station 68, has served out of stations 51, 39, 83, 73, 37, 60 and 35.
  • Engineer Operator EMT Robert Bebee, 41, of Station 51. He began his career with the Houston Fire Department in August of 2001 and in addition to Fire Station 51, has served out of Stations 37, 40, 10 and 48.
  • Firefighter EMT Robert Garner, 29, of Station 68. He began his career with the Houston Fire Department in October of 2010 and has served out of Fire Station 68 since.
  • Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, of Station 68. She graduated from Houston Fire Department Academy this past April and was assigned to Fire Station 68. This was only her second fire.
  • Firefighters at the site of destroyed building saluted their fallen comrades Friday. Ambulances carrying their remains drove a processional past the fire stations where they served, as the streets were lined with firefighters and others paying tribute.

    More than 150 firefighters fought the stubborn fire from ladders and the Southwest Freeway feeder road. They had to be rotated out of service, as the heat of the flames and smoke proved to be too much for any to tolerate for long.

    "You walk in, average fire, our temperature is going to be at about 500 or 600 degrees," explained HFD Captain Ruy Lozano. "You gear up, your body temperature is going to be at that place of exhaustion within 10 minutes."

    Fire officials said they took a high risk in aggressively fighting the fire because they believed people were inside the motel. When a portion of the building collapsed, the firefighters were trapped.

    "It was an occupied structure, during business hours. There was every indication to think there was a life to be saved," Lozano said.

    Lozano said at a news conference Saturday that firefighters were turning to each other and their families as they grieved their colleagues.

    "Anytime one of your brothers or sisters are affected, it's not just that, it's also a reminder of the inherent danger of this profession. It reminds you. It reminds your family," Lozano said.

    A joint memorial service is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday at 10am, but the location and other details are still pending. We'll keep you updated as new details on services come into the newsroom.

    A ROAD TO RECOVERY FOR THE INJURED

    In addition to the four tragic deaths, 13 firefighters were injured in the blaze. The injuries ranged from heat exhaustion to severe burns.

    Five of the 13 remained hospitalized Saturday. Of those, one remains in critical condition, three are under observation and another underwent surgery. Officials said no civilians were transported.

    The fire department released the names of the five firefighters hospitalized. They are:

  • Engineer Operator Anthony Livesay on Rescue 42
  • Firefighter EMT Robert Yarbrough on Rescue 42
  • Firefighter EMT Foster Santos on Rescue 11
  • Engineer Operator/Paramedic Marcus Hernandez on Medic 3
  • Captain William Dowling on Engine 68. He is listed in critical condition in the ICU burns unit. One of his legs has been amputated.
  • An HFD statement Friday read, "Our deepest thoughts and prayers are with not only those friends and family of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice today but also those who were injured and all members of our department."

    THE DEADLIEST DAY

    "Today will go down as the worst day in history of the Houston Fire Department," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Friday. "The most loss of life ever."

    The fire was the deadliest in the 118-year history of the department.

    Records from HoustonFireMemorial.org show that dating back to 1889, never before have so many HFD firefighters been killed in a single blaze.

    "Take a moment to consider what the job is and the dangers they face every day," Mayor Parker said.

    AN OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT

    The community has shown an outpouring of support as HFD struggles to recover from this tragedy.

    The families of those fire victims were lifted up in prayer Saturday morning at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in downtown Houston.

    "Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, to all those in the fire services, that the Lord will give them comfort. And to the four brave firefighters, that the Lord will receive them into his loving arms," Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said.

    Those four firefighters were also being honored Saturday at their fire stations where flags fluttered at half-mast.

    The five-alarm fire took Renaud and Bebee from Station 51. Garner and Sullivan were from Station 68.

    Residents dropped off balloons and cards and flowers, adding to the black bands of mourning honoring the dead.

    Barbara Perales, who lives near the fire station, could see the fire from the medical center and knew it was close to her old neighborhood, close to the men and women who she once called upon.

    "Twenty years ago when I was here, I know they helped me one time when I needed them and it broke my heart," she said. "I know [the victims' loved ones] are not going to have a sister, a wife, a best friend, or a father, a friend. It's just going to be hard."

    But they do have support. Residents brought flowers, balloons and even meals to the fire stations Saturday.

    Cydney Rex dropped off a plastic fire hat. It was all she could think to bring.

    "They give to our community so we want to find a way to give back to them," Rex said.

    The Demmers came as a family. The mother was too distraught to speak.

    "We take it for granted and we shouldn't," Eric Demmer said. "It shouldn't be just times like this. It should be every day. When I see them at the grocery store or somewhere it makes me proud to have them there."

    "It's hard, but I would like to tell them thank you," Perales said. "Thank you that they were here. And they're heroes."

    At the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association was a war room of sorts with union representatives organizing support for families.

    The following statement was released by Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association: "Houston firefighters mourn the loss of our three brothers and our sister and will forever honor their sacrifices. Our association and the International Association of Fire Fighters are monitoring the conditions of the six injured firefighters and will be assisting them and their families in every way possible. This tragedy underscores the inherent dangers of our profession. Please keep Houston firefighters in your thoughts and prayers."

    The Fire Fighters Foundation of Houston also released a statement Friday that read, in part: "[FFFH] extends our deepest sympathy to the families of our fallen Fire Fighters killed in today's horrific fire. Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured as well. We as Houstonians rely on fire fighters as our first responders. For more than 150 years, they have answered the call with their indisputable commitment to save lives and in the process, kept our community and loved ones safe. Today they paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives."

    And the Houston Police Department expressed their support for HFD in a Facebook post Saturday that read, "Chief McClelland and the entire department wish to extend their condolences to the men and women of the Houston Fire Department. Four brave heroes were lost yesterday as they protected the citizens of Houston. Please pray for them and their families as they go through this difficult time."

    A leader with Houston's Ministers Against Crime is leading a call to prayer Sunday morning outside the Southwest Inn. Rev. Dr. Robert Gilmore plans to hold a prayer service at the scene of the deadly fire at 8am. He's encouraging all denominations to participate.

    INVESTIGATING THE CAUSE

    We still don't know what may have sparked that deadly fire. Investigators were at the scene Saturday inspecting what's left of the Southwest Inn.

    The HFD Arson Division is taking the lead in the investigation of the fire, with assistance from the State Fire Marshal's Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Houston Police Department.

    A source inside the fire department tells us the ceiling was made of heavy plaster that caved in, falling on a group of firefighters. Four firefighters became disoriented and separated from the rest of the group. They were unable to get out and died.

    HFD Chief Terry Garrison said, "We took the highest amount of risk possible because we thought we had civilians in the structure. The structure collapsed and our members who were trying to save lives were lost."

    Chief Garrison added that the Houston Fire Department is the third largest fire department in the country and one of the busiest.

    "We will learn from this," he promised. "We will improve."

    The investigation is expected to take some time, but officials say they will continue as long as necessary.

    HOW YOU CAN HELP

    The Red Cross is providing assistance. Additionally, the 100 Club is supporting the victims and families. Anyone interested in donating can do so online at the100club.org. Plainfield Inn is donating rooms to some families displaced by the fire.

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