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Widow of Houston fire captain sues Motorola over radios used in 2013 Southwest Inn inferno

February 27, 2019

The widow of a Houston fire captain is suing Motorola over allegations that faulty radios were to blame for the massive brain injury her husband suffered during the deadly 2013 Southwest Inn blaze.

William “Iron Bill” Dowling was among more than a dozen firefighters injured in Houston Fire Department’s deadliest tragedy when the hotel roof collapsed 12 minutes into the five-alarm call. Four more, Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, Matthew Renaud, and Anne Sullivan, were killed instantly. Dowling died in March 2017 because of complications he suffered in the fire.

The lack of oxygen in the burning building caused the “catastrophic” brain damage which “left him with the mental capacity of a 5-6-year-old child,” according to the lawsuit filed last week in Harris County District Court. The case has since been transferred to federal court.

Dowling’s wife, Jacki Dowling, believes the radio equipment used by the firefighters “delayed rescuers from reaching him in time to prevent a substantial loss of oxygen.”

Falling debris crushed Dowling’s legs and left him trapped for about 45 minutes. He spent six months in the hospital after having both legs partially amputated.

The family of Dowling was not among the relatives of fallen firefighters who in 2016 first sued the telecommunications company. The plaintiffs were relatives of Bebee, Garner and Sullivan. Injured firefighter Robert Yarborough later joined the lawsuit. The case was settled last year for an undisclosed amount.

“She spent four years of her life taking care of her very sick husband, the love of her life. That was her focus,” Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said on behalf of Jacki Dowling.

The suit is seeking more than $45 million in damages in the aftermath of the fatal injuries. A physician to Dowling said in September 2018 the injuries left him mentally incompetent.

“After the fire, he was clearly unable to make decisions for himself, care for himself without the significant help of others,” wrote Dowling’s physician, Dr. Peter Bigler.

Dowling was unable to “meaningfully communicate by voice with others,” Bigler said. “Communication with him was principally through physical gestures and non-verbal motions.”

“Captain Dowling ‘survived’ to live a horrible and excruciatingly painful four more years as a child trapped in a completely broken body,” the suit alleges.

The digital radios are believed to have blocked hundreds of transmissions during the fire and caused a nearly half hour delay in rescuing Dowling. The city of Houston bought the radio equipment for $138 million and implemented it a month before the fire.

A state report found that the new equipment made communications “difficult if not impossible.”

“Motorola’s radios robbed Captain Dowling of not only seconds, but more than enough minutes of needed time to prevent his brain injury,” the suit reads.

Expert witness reports from the original case about the scrutinized radio equipment were included with the latest filing.

In a separate statement Tuesday night, Lancton said the radios are still an issue.

“Like firefighters around the nation, we have had serious concerns about these radios. Beginning in 2013, before the catastrophic Southwest Inn Fire, we advised the city of systemic radio failures,” Lancton said. “This digital radio system has never been very reliable. Problems with our radios, which are critical life-saving equipment, continue to this day.”

Attorneys for Motorola, who did not respond to a request for comment, have denied the company’s role in the injuries alleged by Dowling’s widow and that they may have been “the result of unavoidable circumstances that could not have been prevented by any person, including Motorola.”

nicole.hensley@chron.com

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