Fire trucks from across Texas rumbled through the streets of Houston before dawn to be a part of a procession that would lead into Reliant Stadium. The trucks filled the front stadium parking lot, silent with lights flashing as they moved into the stadium parking lot an hour before the memorial service started.
Cari Henry held her son Kason, 6, 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. She pointed at the different firetrucks as the motored by before going to find a seat in the stadium for the memorial. Firefighters were seated on the floor before a stage surrounded by floral arrangements surrounding four firefighter jackets that were propped, the last names of each victim printed across the back.
At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, Reliant Stadium was silent, aside from squeaking chairs and the steady drone of the air conditioning, as the families of the 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 the 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, across the country and across the continent came to town for the public memorial service, Houston Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison said on Wednesday morning. Some were at the service and some 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 seems to be always 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 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 in attendance, 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, Garner, Bebee 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 last Friday.
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 scene. (HFD Public Information Officer Capt. Ruy Lozano said it is standard protocol to search for people when a place of business catches on fire in the middle of the day, because, logically, people could be inside.)
Friday 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 on Wednesday the name of the place will be synonymous for firefighters with the deaths of Renaud, Bebee, Garner and Sullivan.
On Friday, officers from the Houston Police Department escorted the bodies of the three who died at the motel away from the scene on Friday. It took more than three hours to finally put the fire out. By Monday morning the bulldozers rumbling over the gutted ruins of the Southwest Inn while investigators sifted the wreckage. HFD 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 investigation into the fire could take months, Lozano said.
Authorities are still being vague about what exactly happened inside the Southwest Inn last week as the investigation continues, but the speakers chose to focus on the lives of Garner, Renaud, Sullivan and Bebee as they spoke on Wednesday.
Mayor Annise Parker stood up and spoke for the city.
"I stand here today not as an individual but as the mayor of a great and grieving city," Mayor Annise Parker said, noting that you can't make someone a real firefighter, because 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 a 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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