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Hotel blaze claims four Houston firefighters

HOUSTON -- Four firefighters searching for people they thought might be trapped in a blazing Houston motel and restaurant yesterday were killed when the part of the structure collapsed and ensnared them, authorities said.

At least five other firefighters were hospitalized in the blaze that became the deadliest in the 118-year history of the Houston Fire Department.

Flames were shooting from the roof of the Southwest Inn and black smoke was blanketing the area as firefighters tried to extinguish the fire.

Three firefighters were killed at the scene, while the fourth died at a hospital, according to the mayor's office and a medical examiner. Five other people were injured and hospitalized for treatment of chest pains or leg injuries.

"We took the highest amount of risk possible because we thought we had civilians in the structure," Fire Chief Terry Garrison said. "The structure collapsed and our members who were trying to save lives were lost." Garrison said everyone else has since been accounted for. A cause of the blaze hasn't yet been determined.

"Unfortunately, the building had much more fire in it than we originally thought," Garrison said. "We do know there was a collapse and it caused our firefighters to get trapped."

When a flag-draped body was removed from the smoldering remains around 4 p.m., about four hours after the blaze broke out, firefighters -- working in swirling winds, steamy humidity and temperatures exceeding 90 degrees -- paused and saluted. A procession of ambulances, under police motorcycle escort, left the scene about 90 minutes later and made a ceremonial drive past the fallen firefighters' station, by then draped in black.

The blaze broke out just after noon at a restaurant and bar at the motel, then 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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