HOUSTON -- A sea of blue and a river of tears filled Reliant Stadium Wednesday as some 40,000 mourners honored four Houston firefighters killed last week in a massive hotel fire.
They stood somberly, and some 3,000 firefighters from around the country saluted, as victims' families entered one by one.
"To the families that are here, we cannot fully know your grief. You have paid an unimaginable price," an emotional Mayor Annise Parker told them. "It's always too soon to say goodbye to a fallen hero. It breaks our hearts to say goodbye to four."
Friday was deadliest day in the Houston Fire Department’s 118-year history.
Killed in the 5-alarm Southwest Inn fire were: Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, who had been with the department for 11 ½ years; engineer operator Robert Bebee, 41, who joined the department almost 12 years ago; firefighter Robert Garner, 29, who joined the department 2 ½ years ago; and Anne Sullivan, 24, a probationary firefighter who had graduated in April from the Houston Fire Department Academy.
"In our darkest moments the dedication of our first responders shines for all to see, and it as inspirational as it can be heartbreaking," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the families. "They boldly marched into harm's way to save lives. It is our responsibility to offer what comfort we can to those who are closest to them."
Four relatives spoke on behalf of the families of each fallen firefighter.
Robert Garner’s sister said he wanted to be a Houston firefighter from the time he was a young boy, but he was color blind and could not pass the test. He went away to serve two tours of duty in Iraq, then came back and tried again. That time, he made it and called his sister to tell her the great news.
"He was so proud of that letter. I could just picture the big Kool-Aid grin he had across his face. He was so excited that he was finally going to be able to realize his dream," Nicole Garner said. "In all of my life, I’ve never seen my brother crack open a book to study for anything, but for the fire academy, he was going to read every word twice."
Two weeks ago, the siblings were having lunch and he told her, "I finally get it. This is what I am supposed to do with my life. I know for sure that I am going to do this until I can’t or until the day I die."
Nicole Garner says her brother died living his dream and those that knew him, knew that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
"I lost a best friend and a brother, but I was so blessed to have these last 30 years with him," said Ian Kim, stepbrother of HFD EMT Robert Bebee, as he choked back tears. "Take the time to talk or write to your loved ones because, for me, tomorrow never came to speak with my brother ever again. No one could ever take away the memories or spirit that each and every one of us shared with them, and as Robert would say, ‘I got this.’"
Bebee was remembered by his fellow firefighters at Station 51 as the guy who could always be counted on to fix things and as an animal lover with a passion for chihuahuas and pit bulls.
During his eulogy, Matthew Renaud's Uncle Tony donned a Station 51 t-shirt given to him for Christmas.
"He gave and gave love, hugs, kisses, emails, texts, phone calls, smiles.. oh what smiles he gave," Tony Rocha said.
He choked up when he read a text from his nephew telling him he'd done well on his HFD test and would be promoted.
"I don’t know about you, but other than our Lord Jesus, I don’t know anyone who knew what their calling was right out of the chute. So why these men and women would ever want to be a firefighter, I do not know," Rocha said. "What I do know is that I have a sister, a mother whose heart is broken in a million pieces."
Rookie firefighter Anne Sullivan was remembered for her passion for the job and eagerness to ride on the pumper.
"No words can adequately express how she impacted our shift and our lives together," said a tearful firefighter from Station 68. "We know that every time we take out the pumper, Anne's gonna be with us."
Mary Moore Sullivan was a rock as she spoke about her daughter.
"Anne Sullivan is three things to me: my loving daughter; my best friend and my hero. She was my hero long before Friday, May 31," Sullivan said. "When Anne was 17, she came home from soccer and told me she wanted to be a firefighter, every mother’s dream for her daughter."
She said Anne loved working at Station 68, and laughed about the desserts she was required to bake as a probationary firefighter.
"The first one she would screw up, and of course that is the one her family got to eat, and the other one for the station. One of our last conversations was how much flour and powdered sugar looked alike," Sullivan said. "God bless my beautiful baby girl, Anne, and the three men that join her."
Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison also fought back tears when he took his turn at the podium.
"When the mayday sounded last Friday here in Houston, I truly believe our fallen members left this earthly place and immediately stood at attention for roll call in heaven," Garrison said. "Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are strong."
An emotional Garrison then presented each family with an American flag.
"Fire trucks from Houston Fire Department Station 51 and 68, where the fallen firefighters worked, were placed inside the Reliant Stadium as a tribute.
Anthony Livesay, one of 15 firefighters injured in the blaze, was rolled into Reliant on a stretcher. He was allowed to leave the hospital to attend the memorial.
Capt. William Dowling, the most critically injured, remains at Memorial Hermann Hospital where he continues to fight for his life.
Before the memorial, Hundreds of fire and police vehicles lined up outside Reliant for a dramatic procession along Kirby drive. A sea of blue marched in the street to the music of mournful bagpipes, a firefighter tradition.
One firefighter suffered from heat exhaustion during the procession and had to be taken to an ambulance for treatment.
Firefighters from across Texas are filling in at fire stations around Houston for local firefighters who wanted to attend the service.
The entire Houston Texans team was also expected to attend. Coach Gary Kubiak moved their Wednesday morning workout up a few hours to allow them to be there.
The four heroes will be buried following private funeral services Thursday and Friday.