HOUSTON -- Officials released the names of four Houston firefighters who died in a blaze Friday at a restaurant on the city’s southwest side, the deadliest day in the history of the country’s third-largest fire department.
“I don’t think I’ve felt so bad in my entire life — it’s like losing a family member,” Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said during a briefing Friday evening. Garrison appeared with Houston Mayor Annise Parker at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, where injured firefighters were being treated.
According to a fire department statement, the dead included Capt. EMT Matthew Renaud, 35, and EMT Robert Bebee, 41, both of Station 51; EMT Robert Garner, 29, and Anne Sullivan, 24, a recent graduate of the Houston Fire Department Academy, both of Station 68.
Firefighters typically work in four-member engine teams, Lozano said, with a captain, driver and two firefighters. On Friday they entered the burning building in pairs, officials said.
Five other firefighters were injured in the blaze. One was in critical condition, and the other five in stable condition with a mix of injuries that included broken bones, heat exhaustion and burns, said Ruy Lozano, a fire department spokesman.
Garrison, the former fire chief in Oceanside, Calif., notified the fallen firefighters’ families personally Friday.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the fire, Parker said.
“The entire building was engulfed,” she said.
This much is clear: Firefighters responded to a report of a structure fire at 12:09 p.m. at Bhojan Restaurant, a vegetarian Indian eatery near a motel off Houston’s busy Southwest Freeway. The fire soon engulfed both buildings, and as more firefighters responded to the five-alarm blaze, bringing trucks and up to 200 personnel, they moved inside, Lozano said.
Cars were parked outside, the buildings didn’t appear abandoned and it seemed safe, he said.
As temperatures climbed into the 90s with humidity above 70%, firefighters moved into the burning building, loaded down with gear, fire officials said. At some point, a wall fell.
“We have no indication any mistakes were made. It was a sudden collapse — it just went,” Parker said. It was unclear whether the wall fell on the firefighters.
Three firefighters were declared dead at the site, and the fourth was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, Lozano said.
No other deaths or injuries were reported in connection with the fire, he said.
The Houston Fire Department has a staff of 4,000, the third-largest in the country after New York and Chicago, Garrison said. Los Angeles is fourth.
Until Friday’s fire, the deadliest day for the department was in 1929, when three firefighters died after their firetruck was broadsided by a train, according to the department statement.
The mayor and fire chief said they would be investigating to see whether the deaths could have been prevented. Garrison said he felt a personal responsibility after hearing about the deaths.
“I thought, what could I have done, just like all the firefighters on the scene. And we’re going to look at that,” Garrison said. “That’s going to be our attitude: How can we improve so this doesn’t happen again?”