HOUSTON (Houston Chronicle) – Bill Dowling, the beloved former Houston fire captain who lost both his legs battling a five-alarm blaze that killed four firefighters in 2013, died Tuesday of complications from his line-of-duty injuries. He was 43.
Another 13 were injured in the tragedy that sparked a damning investigation that found problems with the department’s personnel accountability, tactics and communications.
In the aftermath of the deadliest fire in the department’s history, the father of three earned the nickname “Iron Bill” for his calm in the face of fiery danger.
“The men and women of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association mourn the loss of our brother Captain William “Iron Bill” Dowling,” the union said in a statement Tuesday night.
“As we begin to reflect on Captain Dowling’s life, we remember why we call him ‘Iron Bill.’ The incredible strength and bravery he showed as he and his family rebuilt his life – and theirs – after his injuries inspired us all.”
The fire department chimed in with similar sentiment.
“Please keep the Dowling family and all of the men and women of our fire department in your prayers,” HFD said in a statement.
The retired fireman – who’d moved to Colorado last year – was hospitalized for pneumonia and cellulitis just before his death, his family wrote on Facebook.
“He’s struggling really hard and needs a major intervention. He is very anxious and has not rested well, going on four days,” his family posted Tuesday morning. “Please go to God and ask for immediate healing and peace.”
HFD Fire Station 68, where Dowling worked, shared a statement honoring their fallen comrade.
“At this time, we ask that you keep the Dowling family, the members of Fire Station 68, and the members of the Houston Fire Department in your thoughts and prayers,” the station said. “Memorial service and other information will be provided as it becomes available.”
The mid-day inferno in 2013 that took Dowling’s legs and left him with brain damage had been smoldering for hours before firefighters were called to the scene of an Indian restaurant and attached motel.
About 15 minutes after crews swarmed the Southwest Inn on U.S. 59, the building’s roof collapsed, trapping at least five firefighters inside.
Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, Matthew Renaud and Anne Sullivan all died.
Another 13 were injured, including Dowling, whose legs were crushed under burning debris. As flames surrounded him, he radioed to rescuers outside, “I’m burning.”
He wasn’t rescued from the rubble till 40 minutes after the roof collapsed.
For the next six months, Dowling fought for his life in the hospital. When he finally got home, he still couldn’t talk and had unhealed wounds.
A year after the devastating fire, Dowling’s wife Jacki urged the department to heed the lessons of that morning’s losses.
“If we don’t listen to (this tragedy), we’ll be setting them up for it to happen again,” she said.
As news of his death began to spread online, friends and fellow firefighters shared their grief.
“The Lord received a great man today. Rest easy Iron Bill. You will never be forgotten,” Lance Wilson wrote on Facebook.
“I’m devastated. My heart is truly broken today,” wrote fellow first responder BK Klev. “What an amazing family and a true hero to so many.”
NIOSH: 4 Career Fire Fighters Killed and 16 Fire Fighters Injured at Commercial Structure Fire – Texas
FirefighterNation: Houston FD Releases Report on Tragic Southwest Inn Fire – Over 200 Recommendations for Change