[Updated below 7/1/2013]
A public memorial service will be held tomorrow at Houston’s Reliant Stadium to honor the city’s four firefighters who died on-the-job on May 31. About 150 firefighters responded to tackle the blaze at the Southwest Inn, a two-story motel adjacent to the I-59 freeway in Houston. Firefighters Robert Bebee, 41, Robert Garner, 29, Matthew Renaud, 35, and Anne Sullivan, 24 were battling the fire when a portion of the building collapsed and they were trapped. Another 12 firefighters were injured in the call, and three of them remain hospitalized.
It’s been a deadly and dangerous year for Texas firefighters. In recent years, about five firefighters in Texas die in the line-of-duty each year. So far in 2013, the official death toll is already 13.
On February 15, Fire Lieutenants Gregory Pickard, 54, and Eric Wallace, 36, were killed on-the-job while fighting a fire at a Knights of Columbus Hall in Bryan, Texas. The city’s fire chief said the blaze
“was sparked by a faulty electrical cord running from a fan in the Knights of Columbus Hall.”
Two other firefighters, Ricky Mantey Jr., 30, and Mitch Moran, 21, were seriously injured in the incident. They received treatment for their injuries at Blocker Burn Unit in Galveston—150 miles away from Bryan, Texas—and only returned home June 1.
A firefighter cadet with the League City, Texas volunteer fire department collapsed and died on March 6 following a training exercise. Donald Mize, 62, was a retired school teacher who began his firefighter training one month prior to his death. Stanley A. Wilson, 51, with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department died on May 20 while responding to a fire at Hearthwood Condominiums. Wilson died after being trapped when part of the structure collapsed.
On top of these Texas firefighter deaths are those related to the April 17 explosion at West Fertilizer in West, Texas. Some news accounts report nine of the 15 victims were first responders, others say the number is 10 or 11. The provisional data posted by the U.S. Fire Administration currently counts only five of the deaths as on-duty fatalities. Those five deaths were men who were with the West Volunteer Fire Department: Morris Bridges, Jr., 41; Cody Draggo, 50; Douglas Snokhous, 50; his brother, Robert Snokhous, 48; and Joey Pustejovsky, 29.
There were seven other individuals who responded to the scene and were also killed by the explosion. They may have been trying to contain the fire, or helping to evacuate residents when the massive explosion hit. Five of these individuals were trained volunteer firefighters, but may not meet the U.S. Fire Administration’s criteria for an “on-duty” fatality because they may not have been responding in an official capacity. (That determination is subject to change as the investigations continue.) Several of them were attending an EMT class in West on the day of the explosion. Kevin William Sanders, 33, was with the Bruceville-Eddy Volunteer Fire Department; Perry Calvin, 37 was with the Navarro Mills and Martens volunteer fire departments; Kenneth Harris, 52, was a captain with the Dallas fire department; Jerry Dane Chapman, 26 was a member of the Abbott Volunteer Firefighters; and Cyrus Adam Reed, 29 was a member of the Abbott and Bynum volunteer fire departments.
In the preliminary information posted on the U.S. Fire Administration’s website of firefighter fatalities, only the firefighters with the West Volunteer Fire Department appear on the list. For now, the other firefighters are considered citizens responding as good samaritans, but not as firefighters. As the Fire Administration gathers more information on the circumstances that led these firefighters to respond to the incident, they may determine that some or all of these deaths were also “on-duty” fatalities.
In 2013 to-date, the Fire Administration reports 33 firefighter deaths across the U.S., and with the deaths of the four Houston firefighters the total is now 37. Thirteen of those “line-of-duty” deaths are among Texas firefighters. This compares to five deaths in 2012, six in 2011, two in 2010, five in 2009, and four in 2008.
[Update 7/1/2013: Nineteen firefighters with the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on June 30, 2013 while battling a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona. The disaster is the largest number of firefighters killed in a wildfire since the 1933 Griffith Park, California blaze that killed 25 men. Yarnell, AZ is about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.]