Thousands of mourners bid 'Iron Bill' farewell
Houston Fire Capt. William "Iron Bill" Dowling died March 7, nearly four years after he suffered devastating injuries responding to a fire
By St. John Barned-Smith
HOUSTON — At some point, even the strongest fighters fall.
For William "Iron Bill" Dowling, that day came on March 7, after a bout of pneumonia, nearly four years after he suffered devastating injuries responding to a fire in southwest Houston.
He served 13 years, seven months and 29 days with the Houston Fire Department before spending the final years of his life battling his injuries.
"He was a mean son-of-a-buck, but very tender-hearted … and very competitive," John Dowling said Tuesday of his older brother. "He made the best out of it. He didn't get sour, he didn't get upset. The life lesson he could teach the world - no matter what your situation, you can choose to be happy."
On Tuesday, when William Dowling's friends and family should have joined him in celebrating his 44th birthday, they instead spent the day preparing to bid him farewell. Dowling, a Houston fire captain injured in the 2013 blaze that killed four firefighters and injured 14 others, died in Durango, Colo., of complications from his injuries.
Thousands of mourners are expected Wednesday morning for a memorial service at Houston Baptist University, less than 2 miles from the fire that claimed his friends' lives and, ultimately, his own.
Firefighters from across the state and as far as Oklahoma will man fire houses across the city so Dowling's fellow firefighters can attend the memorial, said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341.
Lights bathed City Hall in red Tuesday night in honor of the captain and flags flew at half-staff.
Fire crews spent Tuesday detailing the engines from Station 68, Dowling's home posting. At the Champions Emergency Services District, where he had also worked for many years, firefighters had fixed decals to the trucks that said "Iron Man, Iron Will, Iron Bill," said Chief Dan Shelor.
Robert Yarbrough knows some of the pain Dowling endured.
"It was one of the greatest and saddest days for the fire department," said Yarbrough, a firefighter from Station 42 who responded to the incident and suffered a broken leg and foot, a separated shoulder, damaged knees, and other injuries after a wall fell on him.
"The firemen who were at that location, the job those firemen did … you couldn't be prouder of the way firemen handled themselves that day … I was never more proud of being a fireman than I was that day. Of knowing all the firemen and everything they did that day."
Yarbrough will join hundreds of other firefighters to mourn the loss and celebrate Dowling's life.
TRAPPED IN THE RUBBLE
Firefighters from across the city responded to the five-alarm blaze at the Southwest Inn and restaurant on May 31, 2013. Dowling and his colleagues, along with Station 51 firefighters, entered the building looking for people who might have been trapped inside.
Minutes later, the roof came down on top of them.
Four firefighters died instantly: Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, and Engine Operator Robert Bebee, 41, from Station 51; and Robert Garner, 29, and Anne Sullivan, 24, a rookie firefighter, both from Station 68.
Fifteen were injured, Dowling, the most gravely.
He spent 45 minutes trapped in the burning rubble as firefighters scrambled to rescue him.
Many didn't expect him to recover. He suffered traumatic burns. He had to have both legs amputated, then endured operation and operation.
When he finally emerged from a coma, doctors realized he'd suffered brain damage and couldn't speak and had difficulty using his hands. His wounds took months to heal.
Dowling and his wife, Jacki, and their three children refused to give up. They took him home to their house in Spring, then to Colorado, as they fought with his ongoing medical problems.
Dowling's mettle inspired firefighters across the city and their families.
"He was a symbol to all of us, that the fire didn't claim everybody it could have that day," said Mary Sullivan, mother of Anne Sullivan, the rookie firefighter who died in the fire. "He was just this symbol and reminder to fight … He stood for hope, for not giving up, and that was very important and needed and helpful for every one who was associated with that day."
Even after he went home, Dowling faced months of rehab and appointments.
One of those days reminded John Dowling just how much his brother could fight. He walked in and saw him with a physical trainer, doing dips to strengthen his upper body.
"He pointed at me, [waving to] me to get on there to see how many I could do," said John Dowling, 41, of Brenham. "We started having a competition. … We went back and forth, and back and forth. The next day he was so sore. Even in his condition, he wasn't going to let me outdo him."
He also had couldn't resist a friendly jab.
When John Dowling enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps a year after his brother, he initially wanted to enlist as an infantryman. But he took his brother's advice and became a mechanic instead - a move that helped him settle into a career after his service.
His brother never forgot to razz him about his non-combat assignment.
"Every time he got a chance to rub that in, he did, with pleasure," John Dowling said, with a chuckle. "Bill wanted everybody to be the best at whatever they were doing … But at the same time he always wanted to be a little better than everybody else."
'FIRE THAT WON'T GO OUT'
He had always wanted to retire to Colorado, so the family moved there last year.
Then word came March 7 that he had lost the fight.
Within hours, Houston firefighters flew to Durango. An ambulance soon carried his body to a nearby funeral home, where firefighters stood guard.
From there, a caravan of fire engines escorted his body more than three hours to Albuquerque, N.M. An honor guard flew him home to Houston.
Friends say they will miss their mischievous, tough, and encouraging friend. He had loved tossing a baseball around, listening to music, playing the guitar and mandolin, and working out, and he devoted himself to his family, including his three children - Foster, 15; Faith, 17; and Forrest, 21, who, like his father and uncle, has joined the Marines.
And while Dowling's fight is now over, the wounds of the Southwest Inn fire may never fully heal.
"It's like the fire that won't go out," Lancton said. "You keep reliving it … It just seems like it doesn't go away."
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