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Rookie firefighter among four dead in Houston blaze

  • This file photo shows Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan of Station 68 of Houston Fire Department.  Sullivan and three other firefighters died while tackling a blaze at a motel in Houston on May 31.

    This file photo shows Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan of Station 68 of Houston Fire Department. Sullivan and three other firefighters died while tackling a blaze at a motel in Houston on May 31.

  • June 1, 2013: Shannon Neira places flowers at a makeshift memorial at Houston Fire Station 51 in Houston. Four firefighters searching for people they thought might be trapped in a blazing Houston motel and restaurant Friday were killed when part of the structure collapsed and ensnared them, authorities said.

    June 1, 2013: Shannon Neira places flowers at a makeshift memorial at Houston Fire Station 51 in Houston. Four firefighters searching for people they thought might be trapped in a blazing Houston motel and restaurant Friday were killed when part of the structure collapsed and ensnared them, authorities said.  (AP)

  • June 1, 2013: A member of the Houston Fire Department walks past the scene a day after four firefighters lost their lives in Houston.

    June 1, 2013: A member of the Houston Fire Department walks past the scene a day after four firefighters lost their lives in Houston.  (AP)

Anne Sullivan was a gifted athlete filled with energy who came out of high school with a focus on being a firefighter. But about a month after graduating from the Houston Fire Department Academy, the 24-year-old was among four firefighters who died while searching for people they thought might be trapped in a blazing Houston motel and restaurant.

"She had a lot of energy and had her heart set at that," her father, Jack Sullivan, said Saturday.

Also killed in the collapse during the Friday afternoon fire at the Southwest Inn were: Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, an 11-year veteran of the department; Engineer Operator Robert Bebee, 41, who joined the department almost 12 years ago; and Firefighter Robert Garner, 29, who joined the department 12 1/2 years ago.

The Houston Fire Department said 14 firefighters were taken to the hospital Friday. One remained in critical condition on Saturday and another was undergoing surgery. The rest were in stable condition and several have been released from the hospital.

The fire broke out just after noon at a restaurant connected to the Southwest Inn along a busy freeway and quickly spread to the section of the building housing the motel. About 150 firefighters responded and were able to get it under control within about two hours.

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The fire was the deadliest in the 118-year history of the department.

Fire officials said they took a high risk in aggressively fighting the fire because they believed people were inside the motel. When a portion of the building collapsed, the firefighters were trapped.

Anne Sullivan, a soccer player and cross country runner in high school, joined the Wharton County Junior College Fire Academy after graduation. She graduated from the Houston Fire Department Academy in April.

Jack Sullivan said he was on his way home from work Friday when he heard about the fire and realized it was in his daughter's area.

"I'm thinking she could be involved, but maybe not," he said.

About 10 minutes later he heard that four firefighters had died in the blaze and began crying in his car. As he approached his house, he saw an emergency vehicle parked outside and knew his daughter was among those who had died.

"I knew right that instant," Sullivan said.

He said that while he'd tried to sway his daughter into a less dangerous line of work -- such as an EMT -- he knew that her heart was set on being a firefighter. At 5-foot-2, she had the "grit and determination" to realize her dream, he said.

"There was no stopping her," Sullivan said.

The father of Garner, Jerry Veuleman, told the Houston Chronicle that Garner was proud of his work and had set his sights on becoming a firefighter after leaving the military.

"`Use your training. Don't be a hero. God will look after you,"' Veuleman recalled telling him. "God chose it was time to take Robert and the other firefighters. We are sorry, but we are also blessed."

The Houston Fire Department Arson Division is taking the lead in the investigation of the fire, with assistance from the State Fire Marshal's Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Houston Police Department.