The fire broke out just after noon at the Southwest Inn along the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft and raged for hours.
Three firefighters were killed at the scene, while the fourth died at a hospital, according to the mayor's office and local medical examiner. Another 13 were injured and are hospitalized. The injuries range from heat exhaustion to one firefighter hospitalized in critical condition in the intensive care burn unit.
"Today will go down as the worst day in history of the Houston Fire Department," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said. "The most loss of life ever."
Records from HoustonFireMemorial.org show that dating back to 1889, never before have so many HFD firefighters been killed in a single blaze.
The mayor asked for prayers for the fallen firefighters. The Houston Fire Department identified them as follows:
The fire department has also released the names of five of the firefighters currently hospitalized. They are:
The HFD statement added, "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."
"Take a moment to consider what the job is and the dangers they face every day," Mayor Parker said.
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."
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."
Firefighters at the site of destroyed building saluted their fallen comrades. 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 Rudy Lozano. "You gear up, your body temperature is going to be at that place of exhaustion within 10 minutes."
Eyewitnesses tell us the fire seems to have started in a restaurant located at the rear of the hotel. One employee of the hotel 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.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined but the ATF is assisting in the investigation, as is customary with large-scale events.
Meanwhile, Houstonians stopped by Station 51 to show their respects.
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.
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.
The cause of the fire has not been determined. A full investigation will be performed.
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