SAN DIEGO, April 25, 2014—Captain Bill Dowling, who was critically injured one year ago in the Houston fire that killed four firefighters, fought against nearly impossible odds to recover enough to be in attendance here to see his son graduate from the Marine Corps boot camp.
Dowling’s journey to get here was a long one. On May 31, 2013, Dowling led the second fire crew to respond to the Southwestern Inn Fire in Houston. Known as the deadliest fire in the history of the Houston Fire Department, it claimed the lives of four firefighters and injured 14. Captain Dowling was one of the injured. He and his crew charged into the flames in an attempt to rescue civilians thought to be inside. The roof collapsed, pinning Dowling in the debris. He was fully conscious as his legs burned, and managed to activate his mayday button. Even suffering from these conditions, Dowling expressed concern for his wife and his fellow firefighters as they carried him to the ambulance.
In the hospital, his condition quickly worsened. Oxygen deprivation had caused significant brain damage. Medical amputation of his legs and inducement of a coma for several months were necessary to help the healing process. Dowling remained in the hospital for six months.
Long before Dowling became a firefighter, he was a United States Marine.
Enlisting in the Marines in 1993, he completed his boot camp training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. He married his wife Jacki shortly thereafter, and they transitioned to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, just a few miles north of San Diego. Dowling moved up the ranks, seeing combat in Somalia. In 1997, Corporal Dowling transitioned out of the Marine Corps and he, Jacki and their first son Forrest headed to Texas.
With a wife and family to support, Dowling took a job at a local oil company. Like many people destined to choose firefighting as their true profession, it was a job which was not to his liking. One day, while searching ads for another line of work, he came across an advertisement for the Houston Fire Department. According to Jacki, Bill cut the ad out and placed it between the pages of his bible. A short time later, he applied and was accepted to the HFD.
Dowling’s training academy took place from February through October of 2000. When he graduated, he had found his life’s calling as a firefighter. Over a span of 13 years, he was assigned to Houston fire stations 12, 19, 25 and 48. In 2013, Dowling was assigned to Station 68. On his off days, he worked at Champions Volunteer Fire Department. In those 13 years, he continued to climb the ladder, achieving the rank of Captain. Jacki relates that each time Bill was eligible to test for a promotion, he would study relentlessly, score high and be promoted. It was as a captain that he led his firefighters in the fight to stop the Southwestern Inn fire.
When Captain Dowling was discharged from the hospital, he tackled his rehabilitation like everything else in life: relentlessly. With Jacki coordinating his therapy and using friends and fellow firefighters to help, Bill completes therapy sessions three times a day, with a slight let-up on Sunday, when he gets a break and only does two sessions. Fellow firefighters built a pump panel that Bill uses daily, following different commands for pump functions and positions.
During Dowling’s therapy, the couple’s oldest son Forrest followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Marine Corps. Forrest reported to MCRD San Diego and began 90 days of boot camp. With friends and family in attendance, Forrest graduated boot camp on April 25, with 308 other Marines, as part of Hotel Company, Platoon 3271—and Bill Dowling was there to see it happen. Following a 10-day leave, Forrest will report to Camp Pendleton to continue his Marine training.
The Dowling’s trip to San Diego was made possible because of efforts by numerous people and groups. Firefighter Aid, a San Diego-based non-profit that helps injured firefighters and their families, teamed up with the Wounded Warriors Project, Houston Fire Department, Katy Fire Department, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and Psych Armor. Numerous donations and SDF-RD firefighters volunteering their time made it possible for the family to attend Sea World, the San Diego Zoo and San Diego beaches along with other activities, including lunch at SDF-RD Station One, known as “The Big House.” Jacki received a day of pampering while Bill took a guided tour of Camp Pendleton.
Jacki cannot say enough about how Bill continues to defy the odds. She was first told Bill would not make it, then that he would not wake up. But now, he is fully awake and alert. He is developing muscles and challenging his therapists to come up with new, more complex workouts. Jacki credits friends, family and most importantly, Bills firefighter brothers, saying they could not have made it this far without them.
Bob Graham is a writer and photojournalist based in San Diego. He has worked in fire journalism for many years; one of his technical writing projects well known to firefighters over the past few years was the Holmatro Guide to Vehicle Extrication. Graham's background includes a stint in the automotive industry, where he was one of the first Toyota Master Technicians in the U.S.; a degree in Business Administration; and photography projects in aviation, railroading and endangered species.