5 alarm fire in houston hotel, What started as a small restaurant fire - a bit of business faced daily by firefighters everywhere - turned into a motel- engulfing inferno that claimed the lives of four responders from the Houston Fire Department when part of the building collapsed on them Friday. It was the department's worst loss of life ever.
"We arrived on the scene and about 14 minutes after our arrival we had a mayday," HFD Chief Terry Garrison said.
In an instant or close to it, a group of firefighters who had put themselves in deliberate jeopardy out of concern that people might be trapped inside the Southwest Inn were buried in burning debris. The precise series of events is at the heart of an investigation to be led by ATF specialists, who arrived at the scene later in the day. But the gist of it was clear in seconds.
"We had an early and quick catastrophic failure of the roof," Garrison said. "There's no way that I would have anticipated that we would lose four firefighters. I want to tell the residents of Houston their firefighters acted absolutely courageously today, that there was probably a dozen acts of heroism on that scene."
Across the city people were shocked by news of the loss. In addition to the dead, 13 other firefighters were taken to local hospitals with injuries. One was in critical condition.
"There is nothing that will heal the hurt we all feel," said a shaken Mayor Annise Parker.
All from two stations
Friday's fire was the latest horrific incident in what has become a spring of mayhem - from the Boston Marathon bombing to the fertilizer plant explosion in Central Texas to the devastating tornados in Oklahoma. Only once before have as many as three Houston firefighters been killed in one day, in a fluke accident in 1929 when a fire engine was hit by a train.
Friday's dead were from stations 68 and 51 and included a 12-year-veteran and a recent graduate from the fire academy. They left behind spouses, children and parents, all to wonder how so many could have been taken so quickly.
Those killed fighting the fire were:
Capt. EMT Matthew Renaud, 35, of Station 51.
Engineer Operator EMT Robert Bebee, 41, of Station 51.
Firefighter EMT Robert Garner, 29, of Station 68.
Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, of Station 68.
Garrison, stunned, vowed that something would come from his department's darkest hour besides grief and tears.
"We will improve," the chief said. "We will get better. We will learn from this, and we will keep on keepin' on."
The fire was reported at 12:09 as the lunch crowd was sitting down at Bhojan Restaurant, a vegetarian Indian cafe attached to the hotel. The front desk clerk at Southwest Inn, Martha Lopez, said a restaurant employee ran into the hotel saying that a fire had started. The two began knocking on doors and windows, telling guests to get out of the hotel, which can accommodate 100 guests and had 45 registered at the time of the fire.
Sammy Sewell, 29, had been staying at the hotel for six months. He said he stepped out of his room and heard yelling. He turned a corner, saw three women screaming and running toward him down a hallway, and then heard three blasts.
"Next thing you know, it was 'boom!' It scared the crap out of me," Sewell said. "I mean, it sounded like a cannon going off. That's how loud it was. I could have sworn it picked this building up and put it back down."
It was unclear what sparked the blaze. An ATF task force will lead in the investigation.
One of the owners of the restaurant, Pratima Mathuria, said she was running errands at the time of the fire and had no knowledge of how it may have started.
"We don't have any idea yet," she said. "All the people there came out OK. There were people eating at the time, but they got out and the employees got out. We are in such a shock. It's a big loss."
Eatery cited in past
The restaurant, which leased its building, has been cited by city inspectors in the past, most recently in March, for grease traps that had not been cleaned as often as required. But it is not known whether Friday's blaze started as a grease fire. Bhojan's Facebook page expressed condolences to the firefighters' families and said the owners will help authorities in any way possible to determine a cause.
Though details were sketchy on the progress of the fire as it spread into the hotel, the firefighters were killed when a section of roof and wall collapsed. Canyon said he believed the roof fell after fire weakened its support structure, though the precise position of the four who died was unclear.
"The roof collapsed," Canyon said. "I don't know if that was folks outside next to the structure or inside when it collapsed (who died), but the collapse is going to be the cause."
Guests bolt to safety
Hotel guest Deric Smith, shocked to see the hotel on fire when she returned from filling out an apartment application, wondered whether those who died were the same ones he saw on a portion of roof spraying water on other parts of the building.
"All I could see was the roof caving in and all the fire just shooting up," Smith said. "When the roof caved in, I knew something had to have happened to those firemen."
Guest Natasha Mosley was in her room with her five children when someone banged on the door to warn her about the fire. They bolted out, not bothering with any of their possessions. As they left, they saw the firefighters working hard above them.
"A big fireball shot up and all of a sudden they weren't there," Mosley said. "They came here to try and help us and get us out. But they ended up losing their lives. It's very sad."
Department officials said the firefighters who died likely were inside the building when the roof gave way. One who was in the room where the firefighters were found described it as looking like a "war zone." When they first got there, the fire was manageable enough to try to attack from the inside, he said.
Chief Garrison said firefighters could not be as cautious as they can with some structure fires because of the fear that employees or hotel guests might have been trapped inside.
"We took the highest amount of risk possible because we thought we had civilians in the structure," Garrison said. "I want to reassure the citizens of the city of Houston that our firefighters acted appropriately. We place ourselves between the fire and the victim, and that only way we can do that, if we think there's a saveable victim, is from the inside. The structure collapsed and our members who were trying to save lives were lost. "
The bodies of the fallen firefighters were at last removed to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science. Awaiting them were about 20 fire department vehicles, ambulances and fire trucks with lights flashing.
More than a dozen motorcycle officers with the Houston Police Department stood shoulder to shoulder nearby.
Plea for prayers
Among the fire department officials there was Executive Assistant Chief Rick Flanagan.
"This is the worst day of my entire life. I could never fathom losing four comrades in one day," Flanagan said. "And we've got a couple of days ahead of us with some tough times. To the public, please keep us in your prayers."
The bodies will remain at the facility until they are delivered to funeral homes in a few days. An honor guard will stand beside them the entire time, until the they are laid to rest.
'A calculated risk'
One of the last HFD officials to leave the institute Friday evening was Richard Mann, executive assistant chief of emergency operations, who was among about two dozen firefighters at the medical examiner's office. Like the others, he left with a long face and exhausted gait, still wearing his filthy fireproof pants.
His fellow firefighters had been lost because they took an aggressive approach, Mann said, explaining that it's what they are trained to do when there is a possibility of people trapped inside a burning building.
"They were serving the citizens of Houston," Mann said. They took a calculated risk to save lives. In the end, they lost theirs."
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