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Southwest Inn fire: The deadliest day in Houston FD history

The May 31, 2013, motel structure collapse resulted in the five LODDs, four at the time of the incident, one years later


AP Photo/David J. Phillip

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Within the pages of firefighting history, there are those chapters that testify to the immense risks and sacrifices endured by firefighters to protect lives and property.

One such chapter unfolded on May 31, 2013, at the Southwest Inn in Houston – the deadliest day in the history of the Houston Fire Department. The catastrophic events of the Southwest Inn fire killed four HFD members and caused numerous injuries, and an additional firefighter succumbed to his injuries a few years later.

We honor the fallen firefighters:

  • Captain Matthew Renaud, 35, of Engine 51 (E51A), a 12-year veteran of HFD
  • Engineer/Operator Robert Bebee, 41, of Station 51 (E58B), a 12-year veteran of HFD
  • Firefighter Robert Garner, 29, of Station 68 (E68C), a 3-year veteran of HFD
  • Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, of Station 68 (E68B), a recent graduate from HFD Academy with one month of service
  • Captain Williams “Iron Bill” Dowling, 43, Station 68 (E68A), retired after the incident with 13 years of service, succumbing to injuries on March 7, 2017

This Southwest Inn fire left an indelible mark not only on the families and brethren of the fallen heroes but also on the collective consciousness of the entire firefighting community.


A handwritten note attached to flowers placed at a makeshift memorial outside Houston Fire Station 51 pays tribute to the firefighters who perished Saturday, June 1, 2013, in Houston.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The Southwest Inn structure

Located at 6855 Southwest Freeway in Houston, the Southwest Inn was a well-known motel with a history dating back several decades. The original construction occurred in 1966, set up to offer short-term lodging facilities with rooms that had direct access to a parking area.

The property included a motel, restaurant and sports bar, all spanning over 26,000 square feet. The restaurant (area of fire origin) and sports bar were single-story structures, interconnected with a two-story facility that accommodated the motel’s lobby, offices, banquet rooms and meeting rooms. Additionally, the property had seven separate two-story buildings housing the motel guest rooms. The guest room buildings were not connected to the main building where the fire originated.

The Southwest Inn building underwent various modifications and renovations over the years, adapting to changing market demands and regulations. However, the original construction elements remained intact.

The building was primarily wood-frame construction and not protected with a fire sprinkler or automatic fire alarm system. The construction consisted of lightweight materials commonly used in commercial structures of that time – lightweight trusses and combustible roof decking designed to provide structural support while reducing construction costs. One notable architectural characteristic was extruded concrete interlocking roof tiles over asphalt shingles for the front-facing slopes over the banquet and restaurant areas.

The fire: 15 minutes and 29 seconds

The weather conditions at the time of the fire were 86 degrees F, humidity levels around 65% with scattered clouds. The wind was blowing from the South at 13.8 mph, with gusts reaching up to 23 mph. There had been no precipitation in the preceding 24 hours.

The Houston Fire Department Southwest Inn Recovery Committee Final Report and Recommendations, released in August (first print) and September of 2014, provides comprehensive analysis of the Southwest Inn fire incident and outlines valuable insights and recommendations for future improvements in fire safety protocols. This reports offers a detailed examination of the incident, its causes, and the actions taken during the response and recovery phases. The timeline below details the actions of HFD from dispatch to mayday, as explained within the report and the subsequent firefighter fatality investigative reports from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Time elapsed – 00:00

  • 12:07:55: The initial dispatch was sent, reporting the Southwest Inn fire. The motel was located approximately three-quarters of a mile from Fire Station 51.
  • 12:08:24: Engine 51 departed the station.
  • 12:10:22: E51 officer (E51A) reported heavy smoke was visible while responding. District 68 acknowledged this transmission and immediately requested the Office of Emergency Communication (OEC) to dispatch a 1-11 assignment, indicating a working fire. In addition, several responding units reported dark gray and brown smoke showing while enroute.

03:32 elapsed

  • 12:11:25 hours: E51 arrived on location. E51A provided a size-up report, stating, “We got a one-story restaurant; we got heavy smoke showing from the attic of the restaurant; we’ll be going in making an offensive attack; we’ll be pulling a 2½-inch attack line.” The hoseline was pulled from the rear preconnect and charged using water from the E51’s booster tank (750 gallons).

05:28 elapsed

  • 12:13:21: District 68 arrived on the scene and assumed “Southwest Freeway Command.” District 68 promptly issued orders as other units arrived, ensuring the initial critical tasks were assigned and carried out.
  • 12:13:56: Engine 68 reported arriving and indicated they would lay a supply line to E51.
  • 12:14:06: District 28 and Ladder 68 (L68) arrived on the scene.
  • 12:14:37: District 28 contacted Command to relay L68’s request to “put a vent in the side of the building,” intending to place a vent hole in the roof gable on the Delta side. Command denied the request, saying to wait until “we find out what we got first.”

07:24 elapsed

  • 12:15:17: E51 was in position to begin an offensive attack with three personnel. Adhering to department guidelines, they used their thermal imaging cameras (TICs). They reported a thermal imager reading of 184 degrees F at the door before entering the structure, conveying that the team had the necessary equipment and was entering an IDLH environment. The E51 firefighter (E51C) used a pike pole to remove the ceiling near the entry door, observing no signs of fire above that area. Proceeding approximately 10 feet into the building and veering to the left of the entry doors, they encountered deteriorating smoke conditions, with smoke extending down to the floor level, noting the smoke was not hot but with zero visibility. E51A used their TIC to verify no fire above or behind their position with negative results. As they turned the camera toward the kitchen, they noted a heat signature and opened the nozzle toward the glow, seeming to impact the fire positively.

07:36 elapsed

  • 12:15:31: Command reported accountability was in operation. District 28 was placed in charge of the accountability system and conducted a 360 size-up. During the walk-around, District 28 noted the smoke “banking down” to nearly 3-4 feet from the floor and smoke from all the eves.
  • 12:15:37: Command confirmed the directive for E68 to secure a water supply.

08:18 elapsed

  • 12:16:11: Engine 60 (E60) arrived on the scene and reported to the command post to have a face-to-face discussion due to making multiple attempts to get out over the radio without any success.   

09:41 elapsed

  • 12:17:34: E68 reported a water supply established to E51.
  • 12:18:05: Engine 82 (E82) requested an assignment.
  • 12:18:18: E60 was assigned to the rapid intervention team (RIT).
  • 12:18:38: District 68 requested a 2-11 (second alarm) assignment, signaling the need for additional resources. Simultaneously, the engineer/operator on E51D reported that the engine’s water supply was down to one-quarter tank.
  • 12:18:43: Recognizing the lack of a positive water supply to support the attack and noting smoke showing from the middle of the Alpha division and the Delta division, District 68 ordered the crew on E51 to back out from the building until a water supply could be established. E51 acknowledged the transmission.
  • 12:19:43: OEC dispatched a 2-11 assignment to address the escalating situation.
  • 12:19:58: E51A was informed that a water supply had been established.
  • 12:19:52: E68 fulfilled its initial assignment of supplying dual lines to E51 and attempted to contact command for reassignment.

12:14 elapsed

  • 12:20:07: E51 acknowledged the transmission and expressed their intent to reenter the structure to resume the offensive attack.
  • 12:20:18: E68 attempted to contact command to request an assignment.
  • 12:20:23: District 68 dispatched E68 and E82 to assist E51 with the fire attack.
  • 12:20:31: E68 acknowledges Command to join E51 fire attack.

14:15 elapsed

  • 12:22:08: District 28 was tasked with leading Division-Alpha, with E68, E82 and E51 assigned.
  • 12:22:08: Command advised District 28 that heavy fire was showing from the Bravo side and confirmed E51 had entered from the Alpha side.
  • 12:22:59: OEC attempts to contact E82 due to an “open mic.”
  • 12:23:07: The RIT crew, E60, positioned approximately 50 feet from the Alpha side, reported dense smoke obstructing the Alpha side of the building. E60 deployed its TIC and noted significant heat and fire venting from the roof. OEC advised all units on the scene to be aware of a stuck microphone situation that will complicate communications on the incident. E51C was ordered to return to the main doorway to “pull more hose” to allow E51 crew to advance farther into the structure. E51C began moving back to the door, following the hoseline, unknowingly passing E68 crew along the way. E51C ran into Engine 82 officer (E82A) and crew as they were advancing their line to E51’s position, and they all moved back to the door to pull slack on the 2½-inch hose. E51C reported feeling and hearing a rumble before being pushed toward the door.

15:29 elapsed

  • 12:23:24: A catastrophic roof collapse occurred over the banquet hall, trapping five members inside the structure.
  • 12:23:26: E82A called “E082 MAYDAY, MAYDAY!”

Search underway

The Incident Action Plan (IAP) was quickly updated to focus on rescuing trapped firefighters. District 68 contacted the OEC to request a 3-11 assignment due to the mayday situation. Alpha division (District 28) advised Command to send the RIT. The OEC dispatched the 3-11 fire, and all companies were ordered to retreat from the building while the RIT team was deployed.

E60 was the first rescue unit to enter the structure. They located a firefighter, E51C, just inside the door, trapped under debris. The RIT team assisted him out of the structure and instructed him to report to District 28. The RIT team then attempted to enter the void space created by the collapsed roof. Several other companies – Tower 69, Ladder 33, Ladder 51, Engine 82, Engine 48 and Engine 508 – were assigned to assist with search and rescue efforts.

Approximately 28 minutes after the initial mayday call, Captain Dowling, the officer assigned to E68 (E68A), was extricated and transported to the hospital in critical condition.

The Rescue Group worked to remove the trapped firefighters from the structure while continuously rotating members due to the extended operation. The stability of an exterior wall in the rescue area became a concern, as a crack in the brick veneer wall was spreading.

A 13:03, a secondary collapse occurred, covering three members of the Rescue Group, but exterior firefighters quickly freed them. They sustained severe non-life-threatening injuries and were transported by ambulance.

At 13:04, Engineer Bebee (E58B) was located and extricated from the building and transported to the hospital with resuscitation efforts in progress, but he ultimately succumbed to his injuries. At this point, the Command made the difficult decision to alter the IAP from a rescue to a recovery operation.

The search continued for the E51 officer, Captain Renaud, and the two firefighters from E68 (E68B and E68C) – Garner and Sullivan. Approximately two hours after the collapse, Renaud’s body was found on top of the collapsed roof debris of the restaurant, and both Garner and Sullivan were discovered underneath the roof debris of the restaurant.

Beyond the loss of life, another 15 firefighters sustained injuries during the Southwest Inn fire. Among them, three firefighters required extensive rehabilitation.


Houston firefighters clean up the scene where four firefighters were killed while battling a fire that engulfed a motel and restaurant on Friday, May 31, 2013.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Southwest Inn fire investigations

In the aftermath of the fire, the HFD’s Arson Bureau, the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF) and the Houston Police Department’s Homicide Division, utilizing a multi-agency team concept, investigated the origin and cause of the fire.

Although the cause of the fire could not be determined, the SFMO investigation ultimately concluded that the area of origin of the fire to be “east entry area to the west end of the kitchen area including a utility room, walk-in cooler, and the concealed/attic space above.” It was also revealed that the building’s design and maintenance deficiencies contributed to the fire’s rapid spread, hampering the firefighters’ ability to contain it effectively.

Additionally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) performed a concurrent investigation as part of its Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. The NIOSH report identified the following contributing factors:

  • Fire burning unreported for 3 hours
  • Delayed notification of the fire department
  • Building Construction
  • Wind-impacted fire
  • Scene size-up
  • Personnel accountability
  • Fireground communications
  • Lack of fire sprinkler system

The report also put forth these key recommendations:

  • Based on fire department procedures, the strategy and tactics for an occupancy should be defined by the organization for firefighting operations. The IC should ensure that the strategy and tactics match the conditions encountered during initial operations and throughout the incident.
  • Fire departments should review and update SOPs on wind-driven fires, which are incorporated into fireground tactics.
  • Fire departments should integrate current fire behavior research findings developed by NIS and UL into operational procedures by developing SOPs, conducting live-fire training, and revising fireground tactics.

The NIOSH, SFMO and HFD investigation findings offered additional takeaways. For one, the building construction of lightweight materials – lightweight trusses and combustible roof decking – allowed the rapid fire spread. The investigation revealed that the 911 call reporting the fire was delayed by approximately three hours. This delay in reporting hindered the timely response of HFD, resulting in the probable smoldering and burning of combustible materials in void spaces, potentially allowing the materials to pyrolyze or decompose for an extended period, compromising the structural integrity of the building and posing significant risks for firefighters.

Further, the weather conditions, specifically the wind, affected the fire dynamics and fireground operations. Strong winds can significantly impact fire behavior, potentially intensifying the spread of the flames and increasing the challenge and risks for firefighters. The gusty winds observed during the Southwest Inn fire may have affected the movement of smoke, the ventilation within the building, and the potential for ember transport, which can lead to igniting other structures or materials in the vicinity.

Understanding the weather conditions during a fire incident is crucial for emergency responders to effectively plan their strategies, allocate resources and prioritize actions. By considering factors such as temperature, wind speed and direction (such as in the NIST Technical Report 1618), humidity and other meteorological variables, responders can better assess the fire’s behavior, anticipate its spread, and take appropriate measures to protect lives and property.  

Lessons learned and changes made after legacy fires

Beyond the investigations, the Southwest Inn fire prompted a critical reevaluation of fire safety regulations, inspection practices and firefighter training protocols. Lessons learned from the Southwest Inn fire have driven changes to building codes and procedures, emphasizing regular inspections, robust fire prevention measures and enhanced firefighter training.

One crucial lesson drawn from the Southwest Inn fire is the importance of conducting thorough inspections and preplanning to identify potential fire hazards and ensure compliance with safety regulations. Effective preplanning allows crews to become familiar with the building construction and unique features in their response districts.

Another critical task for firefighters is to accurately identify and understand the building performance factors and inherent characteristics they encounter on the fireground. These factors are essential in comprehending how a building’s structure presents itself during an evolving incident and how it will behave under the stress of a fire and throughout the event. The ability to discern and differentiate these building performance factors is crucial for effective decision-making and tactical operations. By thoroughly understanding a building’s anatomy, such as its construction materials, layout and potential fire spread pathways, firefighters can make informed assessments and predictions about its behavior during fire incidents.

Furthermore, recognizing the impact of elapsed incident time is vital. As an incident progresses, conditions within a building can change rapidly, and understanding the effects of time is essential for adjusting strategies and tactics accordingly. Firefighters must continuously evaluate the evolving situation, considering factors such as fire growth, structural integrity and the potential for collapse.

A legacy of sacrifice

The Southwest Inn fire highlights the painful sacrifices made by firefighters. We remember and honor Captain Matthew Renaud, Engineer Operator Robert Bebee, Firefighter Robert Garner, Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, and Captain William “Iron Bill” Dowling. May the memory of these brave individuals continue to serve as a reminder of the valor, selflessness and unwavering dedication displayed by firefighters worldwide, and may it inspire us all to honor their legacy by striving for safer communities and a more resilient firefighting profession.


The memory of 24-year-old Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan was honored with an elementary school dedication in Riverstone, Texas.

Photo/Djmaschek via Wikimedia Commons


Joshua Davis is a member of Lexipol’s Fire Content Development Team. He serves as an assistant fire chief/fire marshal with the Leander (Texas) Fire Department. Davis has over 25 years of progressive experience in public safety by way of fire, EMS, law enforcement, government and emergency management, with more than 13 years of experience as a fire marshal and arson investigator. To connect with Davis, visit his LinkedIn.