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Houston firefighters killed in blaze are mourned by 15,000 at service

Firefighters stand and salute during a memorial service for four Houston firefighters in Houston, Texas June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Richard Carson
Firefighters stand and salute during a memorial service for four Houston firefighters in Houston, Texas June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Richard Carson

By Amanda Orr

HOUSTON (Reuters) - About 15,000 people gathered in Houston on Wednesday to remember four firefighters who died in a hotel and restaurant blaze that was described as the deadliest in the history of that city's fire department.

"It's always too soon to say goodbye to another fine hero," Houston Mayor Annise Parker told family, friends, firefighters and public officials at Reliant Stadium, where the Houston Texans play football. "It breaks our hearts to say goodbye to four."

Robert Bebee, 41, Robert Garner, 29, Matthew Renaud, 35, and Anne Sullivan, 24, were killed after they rushed into the fire at Bhojan Restaurant and Southwest Inn, fearing people were trapped. The roof collapsed while they were inside, fire officials said.

Thirteen other firefighters were injured. Three are still hospitalized, including one who is in a medically-induced coma, fire officials said.

Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said that Friday had been the most catastrophic day in the history of the fire department. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

On Wednesday, about 100 fire trucks from across Texas lined the streets outside the stadium, emergency lights silently flashing.

Firefighters' relatives leaned on each other for physical support as they entered the service, where they were greeted by salutes from uniformed first responders from around the country.

Two firefighters who had been injured on Friday and are still hospital patients were in attendance. Firefighter Robert Yarbrough was in a wheelchair and Engineer Operator Anthony Livesay was on a stretcher.

Inside the stadium, fire trucks from the two stations where the fallen firefighters had worked were draped in black bunting, their ladders extended to display a U.S. flag.

"They gave people a second chance to be with loved ones on holidays, birthdays and weddings," Texas Governor Rick Perry said of the fallen firefighters.

Renaud, who won a medal in April for saving a person who had been trapped in an apartment fire, was remembered by his uncle Tony Rocha for his text messages and smile. Bebee was known for rescuing Chihuahuas and pit bulls, his stepbrother Ian Kim said.

Garner had served two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force before joining the Houston Fire Department in 2010. His sister Nicole Garner recalled having lunch with her "little brother" about two weeks ago.

"He said, 'I finally get it. This is what I'm supposed to do with my life,'" she told the audience, referring to his work as a firefighter. "'I know for sure I'm going to do this until I can't or until the day I die.'"

Sullivan, who was a volunteer firefighter before joining the Houston Fire Department in April, was said to have dreamt since she was a teenager of doing that job.

"Anne Sullivan was three things to me," said her mother, Mary Moore Sullivan. "My loving daughter, my best friend and my hero."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Toni Reinhold)

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