HOUSTON (AP) - Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison saluted an honor guard member, received from him an American flag and a return salute, then turned on his heels and knelt before grieving relatives of a firefighter killed on the job.
He handed them the folded flag, offering a few quiet words of comfort and a smile.
Garrison performed the task Wednesday four times- an unprecedented duty in the 118-year history of the department- as the nation's fourth-biggest city and fellow firefighters from around North America remembered four firefighters killed while battling a massive hotel fire last week.
"We lost four very, very brave members," Garrison told thousands who gathered at Houston's Reliant Stadium for a memorial. "They paid the ultimate price."
The four died when a structure at the Southwest Inn collapsed in a fire that grew Friday to five alarms.
"To the families of our fallen firefighters, let me say I recognize your sacrifice and I thank you," the chief said. "You gave more, much much more than whatever is expected of you. You gave part of your life. You gave your loved ones."
Killed in the fire were Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, who had been with the department for 11 1/2 years; engineer operator Robert Bebee, 41, who joined almost 12 years ago; firefighter Robert Garner, 29, who joined the department 2 1/2 years ago; and Anne Sullivan, 24, a probationary firefighter who had graduated in April from the Houston Fire Department Academy.
The service stretched to nearly three hours and was marked by prayers, tears and laughter as the victims were celebrated as heroes.
"It's a painful day," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "It's also a necessary day. And it's our duty to honor these four individuals ... four people who sacrificed everything in the service of their community.
"Flames don't discriminate. It doesn't matter if it's a seasoned veteran or a fresh graduate of the academy."
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, her voice halting at times, said it broke hearts of a "great and grieving city" to have to say goodbye.
"We can't make the pain go away," she said, looking toward the victims' relatives. "We can't make it hurt less. We honor the lives of these four brave heroes. And we thank you for sharing them with us."
Large brass bells that generations ago marked the beginning of fire shifts sounded the last duty call for each of the firefighters as the thousands in uniform stood silently at attention.
Capt. Michael Mire said the bells signaled "the end of our comrades' duties here on earth."
A radio message broadcast department-wide and through the stadium announced the four names and their "ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty." Their "dedication to the Houston Fire Department and city of Houston will not be forgotten," the message from an unseen dispatcher said.
Then "Taps" echoed through the stadium, followed by a bagpipe performance of "Amazing Grace."
Pictures of the four victims were shown on video screens in the cavernous stadium, normally home to the NFL's Houston Texans. Behind the stage, two fire trucks with ladders extended and draped in black held up a giant American flag. Similar trucks outside hoisted U.S. and Texas flags.
Nicole Garner, Robert Garner's sister, recalled having lunch with her brother a few weeks ago. He told her then he'd finally figured out that being a firefighter was what he needed to do with his life.
"My brother died fulfilling his dream," she said.
Tony Rocha, while talking about his nephew Renaud, donned a fire department t-shirt he had amended to include a large "51"- Renaud's station number.
Mary Moore Sullivan called her daughter, Anne, a "loving daughter, best friend and my hero."
"God bless my beautiful baby girl Anne and the three men who joined her," she said tearfully.
Opening and closing prayers were led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
The day began with dozens of fire trucks and emergency services vehicles- including some from New Orleans, Austin and Dallas- converging on a flag-lined street. Officials said fire department representatives had come from Canada to Mexico, from New York City to California.
"This is what the firefighter family is all about," said Teresa Gonzales, whose husband is a 30-year Houston firefighter. "It's awesome they're doing this for the families (of the victims)."
Daysha Spivey, a Houston resident, watched the procession outside of the stadium with her two small sons.
"It's amazing, it's sad, it's very impressive," she said. "It makes me want to be a firefighter."
Investigators at the scene of the blaze have said they are focusing on an attic and the kitchen area of a restaurant connected to the motel. They don't expect the findings of their investigation to be announced for months.
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