HOUSTON – Firefighters lined the streets and highways from the Texas Medical Center to Tomball Wednesday to honor Captain Bill Dowling and his family as he headed home. Dowling rode in his captain's seat on Fire Engine 68 while receiving a hero’s salute along the way.
Volunteer Fire Departments were staged along the route as the captain traveled down North Macgregor Way to Highway 288, on to I-45 North and outside the city limits. Captain Dowling lost both of his legs and suffered brain damage after getting trapped in the fire on May 31, which has become known as the deadliest day in the Houston Fire Department’s 118-year history.
Dowling was trapped in the fire with his legs pinned by burning debris. He was awake and alert when he was rescued and shouted to his fellow firefighters to let his wife know he would be okay, but his condition began to worsen soon after. After the medical amputation and he began to awake from several weeks of sedation, it became apparent that he suffered hypoxia. The condition left him barely able to communicate.
His colleagues from Houston Fire Department Station 68 drove their ambulance to Memorial Hermann Hospital to personally transfer Dowling to the rehabilitation facility at TIRR, the same facility where Congresswoman Gabby Giffords underwent rehabilitation.
After months of rehab, the captain is now being allowed to return to the comforts of his own home, but he still has a long road of recovery ahead.
Captain Dowling will need constant in-home nursing care. How much he will eventually recover from the hypoxia he suffered during treatment is still only a guess. But this is the same Bill known as “Iron Bill” and the same man who yelled from an ambulance the day of the fire, “Tell Jacki that I’m going to fight for her and the kids.”
That’s the fighter Jacki Dowling, his wife, believes will eventually come home.
”One million percent. He’s still fighting. He’s a tough cookie,” Jacki said. “My hope is for him to get 100 percent recovered and we move forward with our life the way it was before he got hurt.”
The Dowlings will host friends and family for the long-awaited homecoming Wednesday afternoon. They have been supported by multiple fundraisers during the six-month hospital stay. At their Tomball home their bathroom, master bedroom, and kitchen were recently renovated for free by Milton Frank Plumbing to make the home completely wheelchair accessible for the injured firefighter.
Killed in the 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.
Thirteen firefighters in total were injured. Firefighters Anthony Livesay and Robert Yarbrough were seriously injured in the fire, but they fought against the pain and were released from the hospital to attend the memorial for their fallen comrades.