HOUSTON – Houston Fire Department Capt. Bill Dowling, who suffered serious injuries during a 2013 fire, died Tuesday in Colorado. He was 43.
Both of Dowling's legs were amputated after he was injured in the May 31, 2013 fire at the Southwest Inn, which is considered the deadliest day in Houston Fire Department history.
Believing people were trapped in a fire that engulfed the inn along the Southwest Freeway, Dowling led a rescue attempt during which four fellow firefighters died and 13 others were injured.
After months of interviewing witnesses, documenting the damage through pictures and conducting lab tests, investigators determined the fire started in an attic/crawl space above the restaurant's utility room.
In fact, statements from restaurant employees helped pinpoint the spot where the fire started. Some employees working that May morning told investigators they started looking for a fire after an odor filled the restaurant near the buffet table. One said "it smelled like burning plastic," another described the smell was "like burning rags."
The witness statements reveal panic started to set in when employees began seeing "heavy dark smoke coming from the air conditioning vent." Forensic tests were conducted on everything from the water heater to electrical boxes to Tiki torches and a mattress. While investigators know where it started they still do not know what started the fire that would eventually claim the lives of firefighters Robert Bebee, Matthew Renaud, Anne Sullivan and Robert Garner.
Months after the fire, Dowling was released from the hospital, beginning a long and painful struggle to survive his catastrophic injuries.
Both legs were amputated at his waist. Deprived of oxygen from massive smoke inhalation, Dowling had serious brain damage that left him unable to communicate.
Still, he and his wife, Jackie, embarked on a yearlong journey of rehabilitation marked by one setback after another.
One bright spot on the journey, came in April 2014, when Dowling's son graduated from Marine boot camp in San Diego, and Dowling, by now nicknamed "Iron Bill," was able to attend along with the his family.
Dowling watched with pride as his son followed in his footsteps, 20 years after Iron Bill himself graduated Marine boot camp.
Back home, Iron Bill made a number of appearances on behalf of the four members of his team who gave their lives in the fire that has now, also claimed the life of Dowling himself.
Statements about Dowling's passing
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issued the following statement:
"I join the Houston Fire Department in mourning the loss of Captain William “Iron Bill” Dowling, who died today from complications suffered in the 2013 fire at the Southwest Inn that claimed the lives of four other Houston fire fighters. Captain Dowling left us on the day we were honoring our first responders at the Houston Rodeo. He was truly a hero whose service to the city will not be forgotten. I ask all Houstonians to pray for his family and friends."
The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341 released the following statement from HPFFA President Patrick M. Lancton:
“The men and women of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association mourn the loss of our brother Captain William ‘Iron Bill’ Dowling. After heroically fighting to overcome the life-altering injuries he sustained in the 2013 Southwest Inn fire that killed four other Houston firefighters, Captain Dowling passed away today due to complications of the injuries.
“The HPFFA, the City of Houston, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and members of the IAFF in the Dowlings’ newly adopted state of Colorado are working to assist the family and affected firefighters during this difficult time.
“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. We also are grateful to our firefighter brothers and sisters in Houston and around the world for the extraordinary assistance they provided to the Dowlings since 2013 – from medical equipment and other items to friendship, support and thoughts and prayers.
“We also are thinking about and praying for other Houston firefighters who, like ‘Iron Bill’ have suffered long-term and career ending injuries at the Southwest Inn fire – especially our brothers and sisters at Stations 51 and 68 and the families of fallen firefighters Matthew Renaud, Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, and Anne Sullivan, who were lost on May 31, 2013.
“Please keep the Dowling family, and all of the men and women of our fire department, and the families of those lost, recently and throughout our history, in your thoughts and prayers.”
Terribly saddened to learn of the passing of Captain Bill Dowling. He was a true hero and inspiration. pic.twitter.com/9PJJP5oOSB— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) March 8, 2017
The Houston Fire Department issued the following statement:
"The men and women of the Houston Fire Department mourn the loss Captain William ‘Iron Bill’ Dowling. Captain William Dowling has died on Today, March 7, 2017. Captain Dowling entered the Houston Fire Department 17 years ago, on March 21, 2000. He retired on June 1, 2013 after suffering career ending and life altering injuries in the Southwest Inn fire on May 31, 2013, that killed four other Houston firefighters.The Southwest Inn fire is considered the deadliest day in Houston Fire Department history. Captain Dowling passed away today due to complications of the injuries. The incredible strength and bravery he showed as he and his family rebuilt his life – and theirs – after his injuries inspired us all. Please keep the Dowling family and all of the men and women of our fire department in your prayers."