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Report: 8 shortcomings in motel fire that killed 4 Houston firefighters

At least four of the issues cited had not been raised by two internal reports; chief blames workers for not calling 911 sooner


By James Pinkerton and St. John Barned-Smith
The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Firefighters battling a southwest Houston motel fire last year that triggered a deadly roof collapse did not completely inspect the building exterior before entering and failed to check the heat of the advancing blaze, criticisms outlined in a long-awaited and exhaustive report released on Friday by the Texas Fire Marshal’s office.

The state investigation cited eight shortcomings in how the Houston Fire Department fought the blaze in a restaurant at the Southwest Inn, where the roof caved in 15 minutes after firefighters arrived, killing four of them.

A least four of the issues cited by State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, a former chief of HFD, had not been raised in two internal reports compiled by HFD into the May 31, 2013 fire.

The report comes just one month after HFD officials told city leaders the fire likely had been smoldering for three hours. Employees at the Bhojan Vegetarian Restaurant at the motel reported smelling smoke about 9 a.m., but found no sign of a fire. When flames erupted just after noon, they called 911.

At a news conference on Friday afternoon, Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison laid the blame on those in the restaurant for not calling the fire department earlier.

“When you have a devastating event, you’re looking for somebody to blame,” he said. “What system can I blame, was it the radios, the engines, the firefighters? There is nothing to blame. The blame was that fire started at 9 in the morning and burned, and we weren’t aware of it.”

Lack of planning alleged

The criticisms include a lack of pre-fire plans for the aging motel structure that HFD should have had on file, since the department had been called to the motel complex on previous occasions.

Another finding noted the first fire crew to enter the motel used a thermal imaging camera but withdrew when their truck ran out of water. When they returned with a hose from a hydrant, the crew did not use the thermal camera to gauge the growth of the fire.

“Firefighters were not aware of the severity of the fire conditions present overhead and that structural members of the roof support system had become compromised,” stated the report.

The death of four firefighters and injuries to 14 others was the worst loss in the history of the fire department and raised many questions about how the fire was fought, how HFD commanders managed the fire and a number of equipment shortcomings.

The state report paints a picture of a chaotic fire scene where problems with city’s new $138 million digital radio system — implemented one month before the fire — made communications “difficult if not impossible,” hampering the dangerous operation to rescue trapped firefighters.

The report notes another equipment failure, this time with an electronic personnel locating system that led on-scene commanders to delay accounting for all firefighters on scene until nearly 35 minutes after the roof collapsed and a mayday rescue alert had been sounded.

Still, HFD officials on Friday called the state report a vindication of their actions, since it did not criticize the fire crews’ actions in entering the building or subsequent rescue efforts.

“The final analysis of this incident does not suggest that the firefighters who lost their lives, or any of the surviving members of the Houston Fire Department, failed to perform their duties as trained or as expected by their organization,” the state report noted.

Garrison said the first firefighters who arrived on the scene made the correct risk assessment in deciding to enter the burning building. HFD has noted their firefighters encountered an occupied hotel and restaurant during the noon hour, with people still leaving the burning building. At the time the fire crew entered, the fire seemed a manageable one.

“There was a negative outcome, but no negative decisions were made on the front end, " Garrison insisted.

Radio system still lacking

Fire union officials said Friday the radio system still lacks reliable coverage in certain areas of the city, and firefighters must deal with radio transmissions that are overridden “or walked on” when other others use the network.

“We still have issues with radios. The biggest concern is that sometimes they don’t work,” said Alvin White, interim president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Union.

The state fire marshal’s report categorized the cause of the fire as “undetermined,” despite the lengthy investigation, and noted “it is the opinion of investigators that the area of origin could not be exactly identified.” Investigators believe the fire started in an area near a utility room and walk-in cooler, and the attic space above.

Mayor Annise Parker said HFD has been working to address to improve operations.

“This is the third report that has identified the same issues,” Parker said. “The fire department has already moved to address many of these issues and implement changes to improve operations for the future.”

Councilman Mike Laster, whose District J is home to the Southwest Inn as well as both fire stations that lost firefighters in the blaze, said he welcomed the Fire Marshal report as well as HFD’s internal investigation.

“They seem to complement each other and give us an insight as to how we can be better prepared for future similar tragedies,” Laster said.

Four firefighters died that day: Capt. EMT Matthew Renaud, 35, and Engineer Operator EMT Robert Bebee, 41, both of Station 51, and Firefighter EMT Robert Garner, 29, and Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, both from Station 68.

In all, 15 firefighters were injured, including Capt. Bill Dowling, 41, who received severe wounds to his legs after he was pinned beneath the debris. His wife, Jacki Dowling, said she had not seen the report and did not attend Friday’s meeting with officials to review its findings.

“It’s not going to change anything in our situation,” Dowling said of her husband, who lost both his legs and continues a long physical rehabilitation.

A relief for family members

Mary Sullivan, mother of Anne Sullivan, called the report a “relief.”

“The only thing that could be more painful (than losing Anne) would be if there were things that happened on the human level that could have been prevented by the firefighters,” she said.

Councilman Jack Christie said the “unknown factor” is why restaurant staff didn’t call for help hours earlier. “Did they want to avoid an inspection? I don’t want to blame the hotel but somebody should have called that in earlier.”

Calls to the owners of the restaurant were not returned.

Sabina Bebee, mother of 41-year-old engineer operator Robert Bebee, who also perished in the fire, said the state report provided more information than HFD’s internal reports.

“One thing, I did feel a lot relief when (officials) said there was no error on the part of the firemen ... each person did exactly what they were supposed to, in the way our children handled the fire, so that was very, very comforting.”

Mike Morris and Allan Turner contributed to this report.


(c)2014 the Houston Chronicle

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