- Associated Press - Sunday, March 23, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Before the burning southwest Houston hotel’s roof collapsed on him, Houston Fire DepartmentCapt. Bill Dowling and his wife talked nearly nonstop.

“We were big talkers . on the phone 15 to 20 times a day. It was absurd the amount of time we talked on the phone,” Jacki Dowling told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1j5zPUV).

They chatted about their three kids, their faith, their finances. They planned trips together. They hadn’t kept secrets from each other since meeting at a party in 1992.

Their world went silent after Dowling raced into a five-alarm fire that consumed an Indian restaurant and motel May 31, killing four Houston firefighters and injuring more than a dozen others.

Burning debris crushed and all but incinerated Dowling’s once-powerful legs. While trapped in the blaze, he stayed so calm his fellow firefighters nicknamed him “Iron Bill.” He even radioed, “I’m burning,” while waiting for the rescuers to pluck him from the flames, his brother said.

He was conscious - and talking - on the way to the hospital, his brother John Dowling said.

At Hermann Memorial Hospital, doctors began whittling away at his legs, removing necrotic tissue that had been crushed and burned. Doctors said Dowling still might die and that, even if he survived, he’d likely be comatose.

John Dowling remembers the night after the accident when his brother’s blood pressure sank to almost nothing, when doctors told relatives to prepare themselves for his heart to stop beating.

Jacki Dowling sat with her husband first, that night, in the ICU. The room sweltered from the heat lamp regulating his body temperature.

Eventually John Dowling took over. “It was pretty miserable,” he recalled.

He kept waiting for Dowling’s heart to give out, for the chaos of nurses and doctors trying to save his older brother.

Nothing happened, and finally, in all the stress of the day, he fell asleep. Hours later, he woke up, to find his brother still alive. He sent his sister-in-law a text that said: “Bill will have surgery at 0900 hours. He is still doing good. We read the Bible and prayed together. Today we celebrate the victory over hell and death, for today is Sunday!”

“That was a good day,” John Dowling said. “Everyone was happy.”

Hard days followed. There was the day they thought Bill might lose his kidneys and need a transplant or dialysis for the rest of his life. Or the day they thought he’d have to have his hip amputated. They avoided those catastrophes, but after a few weeks in the hospital, Dowling stopped waking up after his surgeries, and doctors realized his brain had been damaged.

“It was like a bomb going off,” said John Dowling, who, like his brother, has a cap of short brown hair and deep-set blue eyes.

Dowling lost so much weight through the ordeal, dropping down to 80 pounds, that he looked like their grandfather before he died of lung cancer in 2011, his brother said.

“We cried and prayed,” John Dowling said. They told God, they would accept it if Dowling died, but they wanted him to live.

With time, he woke up. Six months after the fire, he headed home. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t hug his two sons, Forrest and Foster, or his daughter, Faith. He couldn’t tell his wife he loved her, or how he was suffering.

“We’ve had to find other ways to communicate,” she said. He uses his eyebrows, or ears or one of his arms now. With effort, he can utter a few one- or two-word answers.

It’s been a communal battle ever since to help him rediscover his voice and regain control of his body.

At his home one day earlier this month, there were more than a dozen people - and Rainey, the family’s brown and black Shih Tzu mix - celebrating his 41st birthday. Dowling sat in a red wheelchair, dressed in gray athletic shorts and a navy-blue fire department T-shirt. Bandages covered both his legs, one of which has still not fully healed nearly 10 months after the disaster. His hands clenched like knots, but occasionally he raised and opened them in response to a question, or gestured to one of the people sitting in the living room of his family’s Tomball home.

Courtney Rainville, a family friend, placed her infant son Ryan on Dowling’s slim chest.

“Can you hold his back?” someone asked, and after a slow pause, with effort, Dowling wrapped his arms around the baby, puckering his lips to kiss his cheek.

It’s taken months of therapy to accomplish tasks like this simple embrace. The goals are basic: Unfurling a hand, stretching an arm, raising an eyebrow in response to a question, sitting up on his own, bench pressing a 6-pound barbell and stretching his compressed muscles to restore their former flexibility.

Much of his time is spent on a low bed with a red mattress in his therapy room. Memorabilia hangs on the walls nearby - a HFD soccer scarf, a speed limit sign. In the corner is the blackened helmet he wore the day of the fire, its visor cracked and melted from the heat of the inferno. On the opposite wall, a whiteboard with his daily workouts reads: “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me!”

He has already come miles from where he was, his family says.

“Every time we go somewhere, they say ‘He’s probably not going to be able to do that … and we go, ‘OK, game on,’ and we go and conquer that,” Jacki Dowling said.

Such was the case the day after his birthday when, under a wet, gray sky, Jacki Dowling and a parade organizer eased him out of his wheelchair and into a vintage red Ford Mustang convertible at Houston’s St. Patrick’s Parade near Minute Maid Park in downtown.

Houston Fire Department Ladder 19 followed down Texas Avenue, carrying cousins, friends and two of Dowling’s children, Faith, 14, and Foster, 12. Forrest, 18, is away at boot camp.

It was one of the few times Dowling has been out in public since the fire. The family attended numerous fundraisers, but for the most part, Dowling’s never been healthy enough to attend.

“It’s good to see him get out, to let him bask in … it,” his brother said.

Pat Duane, the chairman of the parade commission, said Dowling was selected as grand marshal to honor his fallen comrades’ lives as well as the sacrifices that he had made. “We wanted to highlight what firefighters do every day,” Duane said. “We’re greatly pleased he felt even healthy enough to come.”

The Dowlings say their friends and faith in God have helped sustain their family. Friends help daily with therapy, and two nurses watch him in 12-hour shifts.

Since coming home, he’s bulked up to about 100 pounds.

“He used to be a bag of skin and bones. Now, you can see some muscle tone in his arms. It’s awesome,” Jacki Dowling said. “You see improvement every day, physically and mentally.”

His little brother was helping him work out recently.

“I was pushing him pretty hard, and I realized I might be overdoing it,” John Dowling said.

“I asked him, ‘Do you want to take a break?’ He sat there for a while, I could tell he was trying to say something, and then he said “Noooo brrreeeeaakkk,’” he said, mimicking his brother’s growl. “He’s never said ‘break’ before, so that was … holy cow … he knows what (I’m saying). So he’s there. It’s just whatever damage there is, it has to be repaired to get Bill out.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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