Houston firefighter’s recovery marks fourth month, May blaze killed four in his crew

It’s been four months since Captain Bill Dowling responded with his fire station 68 crew to a multi-alarm blaze at the Southwest Inn in Houston.  About 150 firefighters arrived on the scene to battle the rapidly-moving fire which started in a restaurant attached to the hotel.  Disaster struck, and the May 31, 2013 incident stands as the Houston Fire Department’s worst loss of life in its history.

Capt. Dowling and other firefighters from his unit were inside the building when its tile roof collapsed.  Firefighters Robert Bebee, 41, Robert Garner, 29, Matthew Renaud, 35, and Anne Sullivan, 24 were killed.  Captain Dowling was trapped in the rubble and smoke, was later rescued, but suffered very serious injuries.

Readers of The Pump Handle are familiar with our posts describing work-related deaths.  When these four Houston firefighters died on the job, I was quick to write about it.  I did so in the context of the 33 other firefighters who also lost their lives in the line of duty this year.

William Dowling’s case reminds me, however, that serious work-related injuries, not just deaths, can be devastating.   We may read about the deaths, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.  Tens of thousands of U.S. workers suffer horrendous and disabling injuries on-the-job.   Recovery and rehabilitation from these injuries is a painful and arduous process, both for the individual and for their families.

Capt. Dowling’s long road to recovery continues.  In the sixteen weeks since the deadly incident, he has already endured:

  • Seven weeks in the hospital’s intensive care unit;
  • Surgeries to remove parts of both his legs;
  • Dialysis (until mid-September) to aid his damaged kidneys;
  • Surgeries to control internal bleeding;
  • Serious risk of infections;
  • A tracheotomy, breathing tube, and feeding tube;
  • Surgeries to remove dead tissue from his severe burn wound;
  • Blood transfusions;
  • Skin grafts;
  • Serious brain injury; and
  • Seizure-like episodes.

On August 22, Captain Dowling was transferred to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR).  (The top-notch facility’s most famous graduate is probably former congresswoman Gabriel Giffords.)

Jacki Dowling has chronicled the ups and downs of her husband’s recovery on Facebook and Caring Bridge.   She’s relocated her family to an apartment—and enrolled her children in new schools—to be closer to TIRR.    Throughout this ordeal, his wife Jacki, three school age children and their extended family have stayed close by his side.