Investigators of Houston fire focus on kitchen

HOUSTON (AP) — Investigators trying to determine the cause of a blaze where four Houston firefighters were killed are focusing on an attic and the kitchen area of a restaurant connected to the motel where the fire spread and then the structure collapsed, the chief of the fire department’s arson division said Tuesday.

“We’re trying to work ourselves in and trying to hone in on certain areas where there is the most fire damage,” Deputy Chief Ed Arthur said. “And right now, we’re focusing on an area in and around the area above the kitchen.”

He said city, state and federal investigators who began going through the rubble beginning Monday also detected the presence of heavy fire in the structure’s attic.

“They had combustible materials in the restaurant and the banquet area,” Arthur said. “The attic is what’s piquing our interest right now, why the fire accelerated so quickly in the attic.”

The blaze Friday at the Southwest Inn, which grew to five alarms, was the single worst loss of life experienced by the Houston Fire Department in its 118-year history.

A memorial service for the four victims, who were trapped when the structure collapsed, was set for Wednesday at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Some 30,000 to 40,000 people, including firefighters from around the nation, were expected.

“I think the fact we lost four of our own, it’s really hard,” Arthur said. “A lot of these firefighters have friends that are investigators. That makes it tough. The size of the scene is difficult as well.”

Killed in the fire were Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, who had been with department for 11½ years; Engineer Operator Robert Bebee, 41, who joined the department almost 12 years ago; Firefighter Robert Garner, 29, who joined the department 2½ years ago; and Anne Sullivan, 24, a probationary firefighter who had graduated from the Houston Fire Department Academy in April.

“We are committed to this investigation of the fire scene,” Arthur said. “It was a tragic loss and is our way of honoring our brother firefighters and sister firefighter.”

Arthur said investigators have interviewed about 100 people, including about 60 firefighters and witnesses, and will be comparing the actions and message traffic from fire department dispatchers to assemble a timeline for the blaze that broke out just after noon on Friday.

“We’re exhausting almost every investigator in our division,” he said.

From 20 to 30 people at any one time are working the fire scene, going through debris. He expected the physical search of the scene to take about 10 days, with a report of the findings months later.

Among the areas being examined is the roof, which apparently had been renovated several times and had multiple layers.

“That’s part of the investigation of the load bearing of the structure,” Arthur said. “That may have been a contributing factor but we’re not ready to come forward and state as such. … The roof collapse presents a lot of challenges.”

He said while the “ultimate goal” was to identify a source of ignition and why the roof collapsed, it was possible investigators would not be able to made a positive determination.

“We have the best and the brightest out here,” he said, standing adjacent to the site. “So I’m very optimistic.”

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