Memorial for Fallen Firefighters Scheduled as Investigation Continues

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Photo by Dianna Wray
Last Friday, a call went out around noon for a fire that seems to have started in the kitchens of the Southwest Inn. Firefighters from the Houston Fire Department showed up, because that's what they do. The fire was massive, a five-alarm blaze being battled by more than 200 firefighters from 60 units. And then a roof collapsed and four firefighters were killed. It's still unclear what exactly happened inside the structure, and it seems we may not know for a long time what went wrong, according to Capt. Ruy Lozano, public information officer with the fire department.

The call went out around noon, a five-alarm fire at the Southwest Inn along the Southwest Freeway, and firefighters went to work trying to put out a blaze that is believed to have started in the restaurant, possibly from a grease fire, Lozano said at a press conference Monday afternoon held in front of the scene at 6855 Southwest Freeway.

Bulldozers rumbled and officials worked through the wreckage, ignoring the rubbernecking traffic crawling by on the highway while people slowed their cars to a roll to snap photos with their phones. Houston police officers watched the gawkers warily, eager to move them along.

"We're only allowing family to get close," an officer said as she escorted reporters past the burned-out structure.

Firefighters were in the building, reportedly looking for people trapped inside, when the roof collapsed, and this one fire suddenly became a historical event in one of the worst possible ways. In the collapse, four firefighters were killed, the biggest loss of life in a single incident in the Houston Fire Department's 118-year history. EMT Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, Engineer Operator EMT Robert Bebee, 41, Firefighter EMT Robert Garner, 29, and Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, died battling the blaze at the Southwest Inn when the roof collapsed, according to KHOU.

On Friday, officers with the Houston Police Department escorted the bodies of three firefighters pulled from the rubble at the scene. Makeshift memorials were almost immediately constructed at the scene. Mayor Annise Parker and HFD Chief Terry Garrison asked for prayers, and people stood out in the rain on Sunday morning to offer those prayers, according to KHOU.

While their deaths are mourned, the actual cause of the fire is still under investigation, Lozano said. HFD has 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. On Monday afternoon, authorities were already bulldozing and sifting through the wreckage of the site, the smell of smoke still heavy in the air. Lozano said the investigation is ongoing and it could be weeks or possibly months before the department knows exactly what happened.

The firefighters were using a new radio system, but Lozano said there is no indication that the new system played any part in the events that led to the firefighters' being killed when the roof collapsed.

HFD officials are also warning people not to play "armchair quarterback" and begin questioning the judgment call that sent the firefighters into the structure, according to the Houston Chronicle. "In this case, they absolutely made the right call," Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, told the Chronicle. "Before we let people armchair quarterback or second-guess what happened, there's going to be an investigation...and that's going to be determinate of what happened, more so than any speculation."

Overall, 15 firefighters were transported to the hospital, one of whom died there. There are still three hospitalized, one in critical condition and the other two in stable condition, Lozano said.

So there's still a lot in the unknown category about the fire. Lozano said the department is expecting between 30,000 and 40,000 people to attend the memorial ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Reliant Stadium.

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