I felt compelled to watch the memorial service for the four Houston firefighter/EMTs who lost their lives during a structural collapse at a raging fire in a restaurant/motel in Houston on Friday, May 31. I try to follow all line-of-duty deaths but this one, involving four providers, really got to me. First, because I knew that the Houston Fire Department (HFD), the third-largest fire/EMS response system in the country, is dedicated to not only fire response but also EMS and customer service to the community. HFD covers 617 square miles with a staff of 4,000 sworn and civilian employees, all of which are like family to one another. Their esprit de corps is second to none and they support their members very well.
I also think it first hit me because of my fire service background, my linkage to the fire service “family,” and because I was present at a fire scene when my father became trapped inside during a search and rescue attempt and nearly lost his life. You never forget the image of a loved one being dragged out of a burning building and resuscitation efforts undertaken on the front lawn of a structure. Fortunately for me, my father survived. But it’s an emotional part of my memory.
Another factor was that I know the Houston medical director, David Persse. He’s not only a dedicated and highly motivated medical director, he is a former paramedic and EMS educator who knows and truly cares about all the people under his watch. There are not many medical directors who have his background, devotion and true, close relationship with all the people on the street. So I know this hit him hard.
But it was perhaps the tragic loss of 24-year-old probationary firefighter/EMT Anne Sullivan that hit my emotions the hardest. Anne had worked so hard and so long to become a member of the HFD family and, despite realizing her dream to be a member of the elite force of responders, never got a chance to enjoy all the responses and great experiences she had hoped to have in her career. She was killed on her seventh shift on the street.
It was pointed out during the memorial service that Anne had just completed the required “third-rider” time on busy Houston ambulances, answering 15–20 calls per shift, and was excited to be able to be on a combat engine performing both fire and EMS functions. She was so excited, in fact, that she showed up for her engine shift extra early so that she was ready to go and gain valuable experience doing what she loved and trained so long and hard to do. Tragically, one of her first big alarms was her last.
What follows are a few poignant things I felt worth sharing with you from the memorial service in Houston attended by thousands from Houston and many other states and countries.
Remembrances Worth Sharing
Family members and colleagues addressed the attendees and made some emotional and heartfelt comments. Here are just a few regarding each of the lost personnel:
Started at HFD in October of 2001
A relative of Matt’s read the last text message he received from him, stating that he had scored 39th out of over 300 on his promotional exam and was so proud to be promoted. Matt died doing what he loved, serving as a Houston firefighter.
Captain Renaud was referred to throughout the ceremony as a “Senior” Captain, one who earned and commanded the respect of his peers through not only his actions, but also his commitment to training and sincere interest in those who served under him. His colleagues also pointed out that he never took any shortcuts and knew his craft well.
Started at HFD in August of 2001
Ian Kim, Robert’s younger brother, gave a brief, emotional statement but concluded it with an important message—that his brother was a dedicated emergency responder who was well trained, confident in his abilities and always said “I got this!” when confronted with a challenge such as entering a structure to attempt to save someone in need.
Started at HFD in October 2010
His oldest sister said that Robert was her hero and noted how persistent he was to “realize his dream” to become a Houston firefighter. She said he skipped family dinners and holidays to study hard to graduate in the top of his class so he could pick the station of his choice—busy HFD Station 68. Two weeks before his death, Robert told his sister that “this is what I must do for the rest of my life” and noted that he was helping probationary firefighter Anne Sullivan like he was helped by others when he started on the job. He took Anne under his wing to mentor and guide her and they both perished together when the wall collapsed in on them.
Started at HFD in April 2013
Mary Moore Sullivan, mother of Anne Sullivan, told the attendees at the memorial service that Anne was “my loving daughter, my best friend and my hero.” She said that Anne, a scholastic and athletic leader in high school, came home one day when she was 17 and announced that she was committed to becoming a Houston firefighter. Her mother, choked up with emotion, told the crowd in a tongue-in-cheek manner that “that was just what every mother wanted to hear from their daughter.” However she was comforted to know that her daughter had achieved her goal and was doing what she loved at the time of her death.
A petite, 5'2" firefighter, Anne was proud and excited to be assigned to “the busiest station in town.” She made 20 ambulance calls in her first shifts and made special reference to her Mom about the love and guidance offered to her by the personnel on her shift. An engineer at Station 68 said that Anne was “small in appearance—but big of heart.”
Fire Chief Terry Garrison told the assembled crowd, many of whom were family and friends who had no direct firefighting experience, that the maydaydistress signal is the signal that firefighters fear the most.
Chief Garrison added that although Friday was the most catastrophic loss of lives in the history of the HFD, the department had to stay strong in spirit and honor their lives by “continuing to do our jobs to the best of our ability.” He said that “Heaven received an amazing crew” and believed in his heart that they all stood ready in heaven “for any task assigned to them.” He also asked that “God bless [the HFD] members who are still healing physically and mentally.”
Chief Garrison concluded his remarks by challenging his members, during their future responses to the community, to always “respond with pride, a happy heart and the memory of their fallen colleagues.”
A commanding officer from Station 51, speaking on behalf of his shift of firefighters, said, “They (Captain Renaud and firefighter Bebee) made us smile and God we lived them.”
He joked about how his fellow station members affectionately referred to Robert Bebee as the “Mexican MacGyver” because he served as Station 51’s “Mr. Fix-it”. He laughed and told those in attendance that he and his colleagues “would purposely leave things broken so Bebee would fix it.”
A firefighter from Station 68 spoke of having worked with Robert Garner when he was a rookie. “He always wanted to learn and often asked questions to improve himself, even asking to drill on a task in 100+-degree heat.” Another said that Bebee “wore his smile like it was his uniform” and told the audience that Bebee would “answer every alarm that comes in from this day forward” because he would always be in the hearts and minds of his co-workers.
Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Firefighter’s Association, told the attendees at the memorial service that the four fallen firefighters were heroes at home and at Stations 51 and 68. He then quoted the words used by Shawnee War Chief Tecomseh in giving advice to his son on how to live his life to sum up what he feels is a code by which all firefighters live: It’s a powerful and fitting passage that’s worth passing on to you and others (http://www.indigenouspeople.net/tecumseh.htm).
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, and beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people and bow to none.
When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again.
In a different way, sing your death song and die like a hero going home."