Houston Families Still Cope with Loss a Year Later

May 26--When Anne Sullivan began her training with the Houston fire academy, her instructors weren't sure she could handle the more rigorous training exercises.

The other cadets loomed over the slender young brunette, who stood 5 feet 2 inches tall "on a good day."

But there was a lot about the 24-year-old her instructors didn't know. In a family of teachers, stockbrokers and lawyers, Sullivan, the second oldest of four siblings, was something of an outlier: The "cardio-queen" was licensed to carry a concealed handgun, drove a red Ford F-150, liked line dancing and had a relentless, stubborn will.

"She wasn't the best athlete," said her younger sister, Kate. "She didn't get the best grades. She just worked so hard for everything. She just never gave up."

Sullivan completed her training and headed to her first post, Station 68, one of the busiest stations in one of Houston's busiest fire districts.

Weeks later, she was dead, one of four firefighters killed in a blaze at a southwest Houston motel that stunned the entire city. It was the worst loss of life in Houston Fire Department history.

Relatives of those who fought the fire have spent the last year coping with its aftermath. As the tragedy's anniversary approaches on Saturday, family members have been reflecting, mourning and waging a resolute battle to honor and preserve the memory of their sacrifice.

In that long year, they have taken comfort in the outpouring of sympathy -- from friends, from strangers -- that continues to this day. They've found consolation in one another and the bond they share. They also wait for the findings of investigations into the fire's cause but stand by the department. And all of the families of the fallen are starting foundations to help future firefighters join the department or deal with tragic loss.

'Oh dear God!'

Mary Sullivan didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Anne before the probationary firefighter slipped out of their Sugar Land home for her 6 a.m. shift on May 31.

"I'll see her when she gets off shift," Sullivan thought of her daughter, a fitness fanatic who'd dreamed of firefighting since high school.

Sullivan heard about the blaze that afternoon. She saw an Internet feed, pictures of an enormous fire and felt the panic that so many relatives and friends of first-responders feel when they know their loved ones might be in danger.

A "horrible, horrible feeling came over me," Sullivan said. "There was this awful, 'Is it going to be this way every time she is going to be on shift?'"

Then came the news that four firefighters had been injured, and she called two hospitals that would have been likeliest for Anne to be transported to.

They didn't have Anne, she was told. "I was a little more relieved," she said. But the panic roared back when news surfaced that the injured were now fatalities -- and one was a woman.

"Now it's, 'Oh dear God!'" she said.

When Sullivan called Station 68 trying to make sure Anne wasn't hurt, a firefighter who answered said, "'You need to talk to my captain,' and I knew. I knew," Sullivan said, shaking her head, her voice breaking.

David Renaud, the older brother of 35-year-old Matthew Renaud, realized something was wrong about half an hour after a friend first texted him at his family's plumbing business, asking if his brother was working. More frantic calls and texts poured in. His fears were slowly confirmed when messages he sent to his brother went unanswered.

Sabina Bebee, mother of 41-year-old Robert Bebee, got the call as she was getting her car detailed.

Robert Garner's older sister, Nicole, was watching TV coverage of the fire at her job at Sprint.

Jacki Dowling, wife of Capt. Bill Dowling, the most seriously injured of the firefighters to survive the blaze, was shopping at an Aldi grocery store in Spring when she learned her husband had been hurt.

Probes continue

Investigations into the cause of the fire are still not complete. HFD Capt. Ruy Lozano did not have a clear timetable for the release of the department's investigation. In Austin, a spokesman for the State Fire Marshal's Office said its investigation should be finished this summer.

The families also are awaiting, and dreading, those reports.

"Hopefully we will understand a little more how this happened," Sullivan said. "We'll get some more answers, but I don't think we'll ever get all the answers."

What is known about that day is that about 15 minutes after firefighters entered the restaurant, attached to the Southwest Inn just off U.S. 59 in southwest Houston, its roof collapsed on at least five firefighters inside, killing four -- Bebee, Garner, Renaud and Sullivan.

An additional 13 were injured, including Dowling, whose legs were amputated.

In the wake of the deaths, abstractions of the dangers of firefighting crystallized.

"Even though my brother is working, Matthew is going to be fine," said Renaud, thinking back on the tragedy. "He always is. This is what he does. We're not this family that this happens to. Not to be, you know, overly confident or cocky about it, it just doesn't happen to people we know, or much less our family."

Mementos honoring his brother, like a fire helmet and jerseys donated by the sports teams he loved, the Texans and the Astros, hang from the walls of David Renaud's home just off Pearland Parkway.

The black-haired, brown-eyed 35-year-old was deeply focused on his career, spending much of his time studying for his senior captain's exams. Renaud's mother, Barbara Perez, thinks the passion may have come from her second husband, a firefighter.

"Even if he could fill in for someone he would," she said, of Matthew. "I had to fuss at him sometimes, you know, on holidays, 'Now don't fill in for anybody, please!' I'd tell him because I'd want to spend time with him."

When he wasn't studying for those exams or working, he loved hanging out with his family and overfeeding his beloved basset hound, Hoagie.

Robert Bebee, a close friend of Renaud's, joined the department at age 29, later than many recruits. The change was almost a relief for his mother since his previous job was as a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

Firefighting "didn't look as dangerous compared to what he was doing as a deputy," said Sabina Bebee, sitting in the front room of her home by an elaborate shrine of flowers, photos and other items honoring her son, a lover of mutts.

Robert Bebee, who served in both HFD and the Jersey Village Fire Department, often brought up a premonition that he might die in a fire, said his 37-year-old sister, Ryssa.

"I'm not stupid. If I can make it out, I will," she remembers him saying.

Visits and gifts

The fire department has helped families cope, assigning liaisons to guide them through the process of burying the dead, said Nicole Garner, the older sister of 29-year-old Robert Garner. In a small blessing, all four were unmarried, without dependents, when they died.

Though her daughter had been with the department less than two months, dozens of firefighters visited Sullivan's house in the weeks and months after the fire. As of last week, they were still visiting, texting, checking in and making sure she's OK.

"When they say the firefighting community is a family, they aren't kidding," she said.

And there are other gestures that help, like the two strangers, inspired by her daughter, who gave their newborn girls the middle name of "Anne."

"It just means so much to you to know they will grow up to know the story of their middle name," Sullivan said.

For Bebee and her family, learning the outsized impact her son had on the people he helped has been its own balm, like the Spanish-speaking moms and dads who showed up the day after he died to share stories about the fire prevention classes he'd been teaching them. And there were smaller tokens, like a firefighter from Oklahoma who sent her a hand-carved memory box. She's also had an image of Bebee, in his firefighting gear and embraced by a guardian angel, tattooed at the nape of her neck.

Nicole Garner and her two sisters visit her little brother's firehouse a few times every month, hanging out and having dinner with "Rob Dawg's" former comrades. They have thrown themselves into running a foundation that four of his friends started in his honor.

Sullivan also started a foundation to give scholarships to aspiring female firefighters and EMTs.

"We know how upset Anne would be to know if what happened to her caused some young girl not to pursue her dream of being a firefighter or first responder," she said.

David Renaud and his family have set up The Captain Renaud Foundation to help families of firefighters who have died in the line of duty or have suffered catastrophic injuries.

The Bebees are starting a foundation as well, for would-be firefighters who might be older than a typical just-out-of-school recruit or unable to leave their jobs and study for the fire academy because of family obligations.

For Garner, there have been other benefits as well, like reconciling with a childhood in a "broken" family. Her brother's death has forced a reconciliation with her father, and though she and her two sisters weren't close before her brother's death, now they have a bond like an "impenetrable wall."

And the families have found strength in one another.

"The camaraderie between us rivals the camaraderie of the fire department," Garner said.

Refuge in faith

For Jacki Dowling, faith has been key to bearing the weight of caring for her 41-year-old husband, "Iron Bill," plucked from the rubble of the blaze 40 minutes after the roof collapsed. The fire forced doctors to amputate his legs and left him unable to speak. He was hospitalized for six months and has been working ever since to regain the use of his limbs, eat on his own and communicate more effectively. Even now, a year later, there is burn damage, sores that have still not fully healed. But his family is confident and prays for a full recovery.

Jacki takes refuge in faith, in Bill's determination, and in allowing herself to grieve when she needs to. She has filed a lawsuit against the owner of the hotel and restaurant, an attempt to get answers and protect firefighters from old buildings not up to modern construction codes.

"If we don't listen to (this tragedy), we'll be setting them up for it to happen again," she said.

But as the anniversary of that day approaches, Jacki said she's going to focus on other things.

She, Bill, and the rest of her family will watch his daughter, Faith, play in a volleyball tournament, then spend the day together.

"He spent that day in hell last year," she said. "I don't need a reminder."

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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