In Memoriam of the Deadliest Day in the Houston Fire Department

Bobby Halton   By Bobby Halton

The American firefighter exemplifies man’s greatest aspirations, and that is to be of selfless service to others. On Friday, May 31, 2013, that level of devotion, that intensity of purpose, and that undeniable commitment to the protection of others and our community were indelibly displayed. For 119 years, the Houston (TX) Fire Department has always been a shining example of excellence, service, and leadership. The Houston firefighter has always been willing to defend those intuitively understood natural commitments that free people have to one another and that make our society a shining example to the rest of the world.

On May 31,. while responding to a restaurant fire, Captain/EMT Matthew Renaud, 35, of Station 51; Firefighter/EMT Robert Garner, 29, of Station 68; Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, of Station 68; and Engineer Operator/EMT Robert Bebee, 41, of Station 51 entered the burning Southwest Inn and Hotel to search for and rescue possible trapped civilians. They went into that building in an attempt to save others. They went into that building using every tool possible, every bit of their training, and every ounce of their character. And although generations from now their names may be forgotten by society in general, their sacrifice and their commitment will never be erased from the memory of true firefighters.


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Many of Houston’s firefighters that day, despite life-threatening conditions, displayed conspicuous acts of bravery that exemplify the deepest and truest nature of the Houston firefighter-a nature that defies mankind’s most powerful human instinct, that for self-preservation. So it is fitting that our most elaborate and sincere tributes are made to those who have given their lives trying to save others, such as Captain Renaud, Firefighter Carner, Firefighter Sullivan, and Engineer Bebee. And we do so knowing that no monument, no speeches, no tribute can ever fill the voids left from the sacrifice made that tragic day by these four incredibly beautiful and gifted firefighters. We do so knowing that not only is it our duty to do so, but it is our privilege and honor to recognize these treasured fallen.

The mission of the fire service has often been described as the war that will never end-a war against the most destructive enemy known to man, fire. An enemy that is ruthless in its methodology, an enemy that tortures its victims, and an enemy that can strike at any time anywhere. And so this battle is fought by the bravest, those who understand that maintaining those social commitments to protect and defend one another can sometimes take precedent over one’s personal safety. That unique type of individual who can only be described in words we reserve for the most deserving among us, words like brave; courageous; selfless; kind; honorable; respectful; and, most importantly, loving.

It is said that a society should be judged by how it treats those among it who can least care for themselves, that the true measure of a great society is how it treats the young and the innocent; the old and the infirm; those struggling with disease, addiction, and mental illness. It is arguable that it is not so much how we empower our government to treat them, although that’s important. But far more importantly, it matters how those of us who share in the privilege of serving in this honorable profession voluntarily, without compulsion, help those among us who cannot help themselves or who have been injured protecting us, our freedoms, our way of life, and our society. It matters that we who aspire to have the same kind of integrity as those we honor voluntarily and without care for recognition or reward help to support those among us who have been injured and who are now the fire service’s wounded warriors.

Injured on that tragic day in May 2013 were 13 brave and heroic Houston firefighters. Severely injured were Firefighters Anthony Livesay and Robert Yarbrough and Captain Bill Dowling, who lost both of his legs and suffered brain damage after getting trapped in the fire on the deadliest day in Houston Fire Department history. According to reports from the scene, Dowling was trapped in the fire with his legs pinned by burning debris. He was awake and alert when he was rescued and shouted to his fellow firefighters, “Tell Jacki that I’m going to fight for her and the kids.” Unfortunately, Captain Dowling’s injuries and the toxicity of the products of combustion he inhaled while struggling to survive took a greater toll on him than he at that point anticipated.

Captain Dowling was placed into medical sedation, and when he awoke it was clear that the hero nicknamed “Iron Bill” would never be the same. Now it’s time for us to show the world that the fire service walks the walk and talks the talk. We have an opportunity to help care for Iron Bill, and it’s an opportunity that we cannot ignore. There is currently a Facebook fad for something called the “Cold Water Challenge,” and that’s a good thing, but part of that challenge is where people get to advertise/post their generosity, where people get to let the world know just how good they are. The opportunity that the fire service has to care for Iron Bill has nothing to do with any recognition whatsoever. It’s exactly the kind of opportunity firefighters embrace.

Iron Bill needs our help now. Mail whatever you can directly to Medilife of Houston. In the memo section of your check, write “Capt. Dowling.” Send it to the Houston Fire Department, 600 Jefferson, Suite 628, Houston, TX 77002, Attention: Capt. Laura Archibald. God bless our fallen, and never forget our wounded.


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