HOUSTON — Four firefighters searching for people they thought might be trapped in a blazing Houston motel and restaurant Friday were killed when part of the structure collapsed and ensnared them, authorities said.
At least five other firefighters were hospitalized in the blaze that became the deadliest in the 118-year history of the Houston Fire Department.
Flames were shooting from the roof of the Southwest Inn, along one of Houston's most heavily traveled freeways, U.S. Highway 59, and black smoke was blanketing the area after the fire broke out around noon. About 150 firefighters responded and were able to get it under control within about two hours.
Three firefighters were killed at the scene, while the fourth died at a hospital, according to the mayor's office and a medical examiner. Five other people were injured and were hospitalized for treatment of chest pains or leg injuries.
"We took the highest amount of risk possible because we thought we had civilians in the structure," fire Chief Terry Garrison said. "The structure collapsed and our members who were trying to save lives were lost."
Garrison said everyone else has since been accounted for. A cause of the blaze hasn't yet been determined.
The loss of life is the single worst in the history of the department, which had counted 64 firefighters lost since the city began paying firefighters in 1895. Twice previously, two firefighters were killed in a single fire, in 1953 and most recently in 2000. Three firefighters died in 1929 when a train slammed broadside into their engine.
Mayor Annise Parker said, "I ask for every Houstonian to offer their prayers to the families of these fallen firefighters, and also to think about what the job of firefighter is and the dangers they face every day."
The Fire Department identified the dead firefighters as Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, an 11-year veteran; engineer operator Robert Bebee, 41, who joined the department almost 12 years ago; firefighter Robert Garner, 29, who joined 12½ years ago; and probationary firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, who graduated from the training academy in April.