HOUSTON – Nearly a year after flames tore through the Southwest Inn, the family of a severely-injured firefighter has filed a lawsuit against the motel’s owner and the operator of a restaurant that burned at the site.
It’s part of a search for answers into what happened at the fire that killed four Houston firefighters and nearly killed another on May 31, 2013.
“I knew when I got the call,” remembered Jacki Dowling. “I even answered and said, ‘tell me if he’s alive.”
Captain Bill Dowling, a Houston firefighter was alive, but barely.
He was rushed to the hospital after being trapped when the roof of the burning motel collapsed.
“He was in that fire for 45 minutes,” said Dowling. “Trapped. And I don't know why (or) what went wrong.”
Nearly a year after her husband was critically injured, she’s still waiting for answers about what happened, what started the fire, and what went wrong that day.
“It’s frustrating,” Dowling told the KHOU 11 News I-Team. “I want to know. There’s a lot of questions I have. You just run into a closed door. A closed door.”
But Dowling, along with the families of the other firefighters injured, and the four killed that day, will have to wait.
“We're working as fast as we can,” said Sr. Captain Ruy Lozano of the Houston Fire Department. “But we're not going to rush it, because if we rush it and we miss something, we're not doing them any justice.”
Lozano says the one piece of information that has gone public, a grainy surveillance picture of a man seen at the motel shortly before the fire, is still a mystery.
“Ultimately, it just wasn't a very good picture,” said Lozano, “and it was very brief that this person was there, so as much as we want to investigate anyone who was there, unfortunately we haven't had any hits at this time.”
Investigators refuse to put a timetable on when their case will wrap-up.
But the Dowling family is through just sitting and waiting.
“At some point someone needs to tell us what the heck happened,” said Jacki Dowling.
The family has filed a lawsuit seeking more than $1 million from the owner of the motel and the operator of a restaurant at the motel.
“Why does it take so long to do this over an 11-month period of time?” asked Keith Fletcher, the Dowling family’s attorney. “What are they missing? Just tell us. Give us some indication.”
Dowling worries that until someone can say exactly what happened that deadly day, none of Houston’s bravest is safe.
“I care so much about the men and women of the fire department,” said Dowling, “I can’t imagine something like this happening again, and it could have been prevented.”
The owner of the Southwest Inn declined to talk to the I-Team about the lawsuit.
The operator of the restaurant has not responded to our request for comment.
Along with the investigation into the fire, both state and federal agencies are investigating the circumstances that led to the firefighters’ deaths that day.