Dear 59/610 Exchange Drivers, Seriously, WTF?

Highlights from Hair Balls

Spaced City

Hi, fellow Houston drivers.

Listen, if you ever drive on Loop 610 or Interstate 59 and use the intersection of those two freeways, we need to talk. There's a real problem. You should probably sit down.

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This week alone, there have been two serious accidents at that location. One involved an overturned truck that blocked the freeway for the whole day. The second was the morning of June 6 in rush-hour traffic and log-jammed the place yet again. That interchange has been ranked as one of the worst in the entire state of Texas. It's an awful place, filled with angry drivers and the twisted metal rubble from accidents of days gone by. It's freaking Thunderdome.

So I have two questions for you, dear driver.

1. Why do you drive there, like, ever?

If you work or live in that general area, I guess I get it, but I lived very near there for a year and I avoided that interchange like it was Amanda Bynes on crack. Not only is it a crazy intersection, but it's nearly always jam-packed with traffic. Why not take Westpark or one of the side roads? Why subject yourself to daily danger, anguish and stress?

2. Why can't you be more careful?

Seriously, people there drive like Amanda Bynes on crack. In fact, Amanda Bynes on Crack is what they should call that whole area. People fly across multiple lanes to make their exit. They do this most frequently to get to the Galleria, as if Nordstrom was going to sell out of that $1,000 pair of sunglasses before they get there. THEY CAN BACK-ORDER IT, DAMNIT! If you know the area is dangerous, why not proceed with caution instead of suddenly turning into a stunt driver from The French Connection?

My point is that this is an area that's constantly loaded with traffic, and very often the people in that traffic don't know what the hell they are doing. I drove through there once and saw a woman putting on mascara in the mirror with one hand and holding her cell phone in the other. She was driving with her freaking knees down the freeway while staring into her own reflection.

I saw another guy there in a Hummer who was weaving across lanes of traffic, whipping in between cars, while eating a burger and talking on the phone. Way to go, Bro-Ham. I hope you enjoyed your thrill ride.

So, if you're going to/have to drive through this interchange at any time in the future, think of your safety, think of the safety of others, THINK OF THE CHILDREN, and drive like a normal, sane human being. If you simply can't do that, you might want to consider retiring from driving. We'd all be better off for it.


Deadly Duty

Four Houston firefighters who died battling a motel blaze honored in public memorial.

By Dianna Wray

Fire trucks from across Texas rumbled through the streets of Houston before dawn on June 5 to be a part of a procession leading into Reliant Stadium. The trucks filled the front stadium parking lot, silent, their lights flashing as they moved into the lot an hour before the memorial service started.

Cari Henry had her son Kason, six, on her left hip and held her son Kael's hand with her right hand as they watched the trucks roll in. It was about 9 a.m., but the sun was already beating down, beading their faces with sweat. Henry's husband used to be a firefighter. As they motored by, she pointed at the different fire trucks before going to find seats in the stadium for the memorial. Firefighters were seated on the floor before a stage surrounded by floral arrangements framing four firefighter jackets — the last name of each victim printed across the back.

At 10 a.m. Reliant Stadium was silent, aside from squeaking chairs and the steady drone of the air conditioning, as the families of four Houston Fire Department firefighters — EMT Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35; Engineer Operator EMT Robert Bebee, 41; Firefighter EMT Robert Garner, 29; and Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, who died battling a blaze at the Southwest Inn when the roof collapsed last Friday — made the long trek from the back of the stadium, down the aisle to the front rows, for the public memorial.

Firefighters from across Texas, the country and the continent came to town for the memorial service, Houston Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison said. Some were at the service, and other crews volunteered to take charge of the stations so Houston firefighters could attend.

Garrison spoke looking out at a crowd of more than 15,000 people, including hundreds of firefighters, all wearing sky-blue shirts crisp with starch, black shoes polished to a mirror shine, spotless white gloves, and faces locked into the kind of military non-emotion that always seems to be worn in photos of these things.

Sometimes a woman in uniform would look down and sort of brush something from her cheek. Sometimes a man in uniform would swipe at his face with a white-gloved hand, as if to swat a fly from his face. But mostly their faces stayed immobile, aside from a constant working of the jaws — row after row seemed to be chewing gum, working it more intensely some moments than at others.

Gov. Rick Perry opened the ceremony, speaking of the bravery firefighters must possess to do their jobs.

"You all understand the magnitude of this loss, just like those who battle the fires understand the flames don't discriminate," he said. "They still rush into danger while the rest of us flee."

If you looked over at the firefighters, this was one of the moments when many were working their jaws, chewing that gum furiously, while their faces stayed carefully blank.

They were gathered to honor Renaud, Bebee, Garner and Sullivan. The four were part of a team of more than 200 firefighters from 60 different units that responded to the call of a five-alarm fire at the Southwest Inn, located at 6855 Southwest Freeway, around noon May 31.

The firefighters were inside the burning building, looking for people believed to be trapped inside, when the roof collapsed. Three were killed at the scene and the fourth died at the hospital, one of 15 firefighters taken to the hospital from the site. (HFD Public Information Officer Capt. Ruy Lozano said it is standard protocol for firefighters to search for people when a place of business catches on fire in the middle of the day because, logically, people could be inside.)

May 31 marked the deadliest day of loss from a single fire in the Houston Fire Department's 118-year history. The remains of the Southwest Inn were torn down Monday, but Thomas Miller of the International Association of Firefighters said the name of the place will be synonymous for firefighters with the deaths of Renaud, Bebee, Garner and Sullivan.

HFD officers had escorted the bodies of the three who died at the motel away from the scene. It took more than three hours to finally put the fire out. The morning of June 3, the bulldozers rumbled over the gutted ruins of the Southwest Inn while investigators sifted the wreckage. The fire department brought in HPD Homicide; the State Fire Marshal's Office; the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Texas Rangers to assist in the investigation. The inquiry into the fire could take months, Lozano said.

Authorities are still being vague about what exactly happened inside the Southwest Inn as the investigation continues, but the memorial service speakers chose to focus on the lives of Renaud, Bebee, Garner and Sullivan.

"I stand here today not as an individual but as the mayor of a great and grieving city," Mayor Annise Parker said, noting that it takes something special inside to give a person the courage to walk into a burning building. "It's a calling," she said.

A representative from each family who lost a firefighter took a turn at the podium. Sullivan's mother, Mary Moore Sullivan, told of how it was her daughter's dream to be a firefighter. Tony Rocha, Renaud's uncle, pulled out an HFD T-shirt his nephew gave him and tugged it over his dress clothes as he spoke of how Renaud died doing what he loved. Ian Kim spoke of how excited his stepbrother Bebee was to be fighting fires for a living. Nicole Garner, Robert Garner's sister, told of how her brother said he'd be fighting fires as long as he could or until he died.

"My brother died living his dream," Garner said.

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