The New Life of Capt. Bill Dowling

Retired HFD hero and his family find new home in Durango, Colorado

DURANGO, Colo. – A quick drive through the town of Durango, Colorado and you can easily see why it’s such a destination spot for so many tourists trying to get away from the grind of big city life.

You’re surrounded by hills and mountains and streams. And there’s a laid-back feeling all around.

But Capt. Bill Dowling, who recently retired from the Houston Fire Department, is no tourist. Not anymore. Now he and his family call this place “home.” They’re trying desperately to find some measure of happiness. And healing.

Before Dowling was a firefighter, he was a Marine. He served in a dangerous mission in war-torn Somalia back in the 1990’s. He would return home without a scratch.

Watch: The New Life of Capt. Bill Dowling

The man Houston affectionately calls "Iron Bill".

But on May 31, 2013, his world turned upside down. 

It was the five-alarm fire at the Southwest Inn, along the Southwest Freeway. Four Houston firefighters were killed and more than a dozen others were injured. The roof collapsed on Dowling. He was severely injured. He lost both legs and suffered a brain injury.

“It’s been a roller coaster of health issues after health issues. He gets better, and then pneumonia or he’ll have to have another surgery and all of those set him back to square one,” says his wife Jacki.

She says they almost lost him last February when he had to be hospitalized. But the man Houston has come to know as “Iron Bill” bounced back.

PHOTOS: Capt. Bill Dowling, family in Durango, Colorado


 

The Captain chews on a yellow plastic tube that helps to keep his tongue out of his airway. He is rarely able to speak a word or two. But they say he totally aware of what’s happening around him and that he is still the Captain. And he does find ways to communicate.

“This is the message board Capt. Dowling and I use to communicate,” says Joshua Keithley, one of several nurses from Houston who provide Dowling 24-hour care in Durango. The message board is full of words and letters the Captain can point to.

“I was telling someone a couple of months ago how much I admire Capt. Dowling and his wife for sticking together through a tragedy, where, in a lot of cases, people would have just given up,” says Keithly.

The family came to Colorado to take advantage of an adaptive sports recovery program. But also, because they love the natural beauty of this part of the country. Something they wanted to personally show to KHOU 11 photographer Kyle Porter and myself. They took us on a couple of excursions.

BEHIND THE SCENES: Captain Bill Dowling in Durango, Colorado


KHOU 11's Ron Trevino and Kyle Porter journeyed to Durango, Colo. to visit with retired HFD captain, Bill Dowling and his family. None

On our first day, they took us fishing at a nearby lake. Just getting down the embankment from the road to the lake was a chore. It was steep and Capt. Dowling is in his wheelchair. But his nurse, Joshua and his son Foster are making sure the Captain is safe, as we approach the water.

We fish at Lake Electra for around an hour or so. It’s a beautiful place, but the fish must not be hungry, because they aren’t biting. But it doesn’t really matter. We’re all having fun enjoying the view and the cool weather.

His son Foster misses Texas, but says if being here helps his dad, then it’s the right thing to do. He wants to do even more with his dad.

“Take him hunting in the mountains in his tank chair and let him shoot an elk or something,” says Foster. 

Later that afternoon, we all went to see Foster at his football practice. He’s one of the biggest kids on his high school football team in Durango. And watching him practice is the Captain’s favorite thing to do. Capt. Dowling still loves sports, and watches ESPN daily.

On our second day, the Dowlings took us on a train ride from Durango, up the mountains to Silverton. It’s a rail line that’s been in operation for over a hundred years. And the vistas will take your breath away.  

FULL INTERVIEWS: Capt. Dowling and his family

KHOU 11's Ron Trevino and Kyle Porter journeyed to Durango, Colo. to visit with retired HFD captain, Bill Dowling and his family. None

I ask Jacki Dowling something that is pretty much a rhetorical question. 

“Why do you want to do things like this with Capt. Bill?”

“Because I know it makes him happy. My whole point again out here is I wanna give him a quality of life because of the struggles that he’s been through and the fight that he’s given. It’s time for him to have some fun,” says Mrs. Dowling.

When we arrived in Silverton and started walking into town, a man driving an SUV stops and yells at us.

“You must be lost! This isn’t Houston!” said the driver. His name is Ed Stanfield. And turns out, he’s from Houston. He recognized me and he recognized Capt. Dowling.

“Oh, that’s Capt. Dowling?” said Stanfield.

“Yes, why don’t you come down and say hi to him?” I asked.

Captain Dowling is getting excited and eagerly raises his fist for a fist bump. He loves fist bumps.

“Oh, it’s special because he is a special person. Sacrificed himself and serving the community like he does,” said Stanfield.

After a round of selfies, there’s time for a quick lunch in an historic hotel. Capt. Dowling actually samples some of the chili. And then it’s back on the road to Durango in a special van donated by Toyota dealers back in Houston. 

When we get back to their home in Durango, they start cooking up dinner. And Capt. Dowling is helping as best he can with Jacki directing his hands.

Watch: HFD Station 68 watches Bill Dowling's story live

 

“Part of the everyday normal stuff is what’s good for him”, she says.

“Is there any message you have for the people watching in Houston?” I ask.

“I always say the same thing. Thank you so much for your support and prayers, but I just want them to know that we’re ok and that we found happiness,” says Jacki. She says they’re not dwelling on the past and are grateful for what they do have.

They plan to live here for now with their youngest son and daughter. Their oldest son is in the Marines. But they may move on from Colorado.

Jacki says they want to travel all over the place. Perhaps living a nomadic existence. The bottom line is you get the sense they want to squeeze the life and juice out of every day they have together on this planet. I have to admire that.

As we say goodbye, the sun is going down in Durango. It’s a chilly night. But Mr. and Mrs. Dowling are on the back porch, wrapped in a warm blanket. They’ve found warmth and happiness. And a new life for a Houston hero and his family.

Click here to sign our virtual card for Captain Bill Dowling.

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