The fire was massive, engulfing the Southwest Inn in Houston, putting the lives of the 45 guests there at risk. The Houston Fire Department arrived in mass and fought the colossal blaze for hours.
By the time the smoke cleared, four firefighters were dead at the scene and more than a dozen were injured. A fifth firefighter later died of his injuries. The 2013 fire caused the greatest loss of life in Houston Fire Department history.
In its wake, the administration of former Mayor Annise Parker quietly hired an attorney to, in part, monitor lawsuits by the firefighters and put liens, clawing back money, on any settlements so the city could be reimbursed for the costs it incurred for the firefighters’ medical care.
That liens would be placed on the settlements of the dead and the injured has caused a furor across the city.
“It’s disgusting,” said Patrick “Marty” Lancton, president of the Houston firefighters union.
Attempts to reach Parker were unsuccessful.
Current Mayor Sylvester Turner pledged last week to drop those collection efforts.
“The city is not pursuing any liens on the firefighters or their families,” a city spokeswoman said.
City officials declined additional comment Monday, except for the spokeswoman, who said in an email to Texas Monitor that “Mayor Turner has been clear and consistent [in answering] questions on this issue. With all due respect, it doesn’t make sense that the union president would continue to press this issue in the media.”
But firefighters said that the mayor’s single sentence comment is not enough.
Lancton said he wants written assurance that the liens have truly been waived.
In a July 12 letter to Turner, he wrote, “We were relieved to see your statement … that the city is ‘not pursuing’ liens against the firefighter families. However, the city statement left unanswered the question of whether the city was actually releasing the liens and not simply maintaining an option to pursue them later.”
Lancton said he has not received an answer.
“I want a resolution to this today, I want it in writing and I want this to never happen again to any family of any of our fallen,” he said.
Injured firefighters and the families of those who died have received insurance settlements and have sued various entities, including the maker of firefighters’ radios that appear to have malfunctioned. Many of the suits are still in court. The city liens ask for tens of thousands of dollars from the settlements.
Ben Hall, an attorney who represents the families of the four firefighters who died the day of the blaze and another firefighter who was severely injured, alleged the city had initially requested between $50,000 and $96,000 from each of his clients. The liens were first filed in court documents in 2015, during the administration of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s predecessor.
“I protested that and said this is really heartless that you all would even try to get money out of the coffins of the dead firefighters and asked them to forgive the liens,” Hall said. “The families had already endured enough.”
It’s not just the fallen firefighters. The injured said liens were also placed on their settlements.
Firefighter Robert Yarbrough was severely injured and was hospitalized for more than a year before being forced to retire as a result of his injuries. He says he only learned this week that the city had filed a lien against him.
“They’re trying to get paid all the medical bills, all the doctor visits, all the medicine doctors prescribed. Anything workers comp paid for or the city paid for,” Yarbrough said.
The firm hired to handle the firefighters’ workers compensation claims also issued the liens. The Dean Pappas Law Firm was initially hired in 2015 and the contract renewed in May.
“What I can tell you is that it’s never OK, not for a dime and not for a penny, to try to recover costs or put a lien on the backs of our Houston firefighters,” Lancton said. “I don’t care who started it, I don’t care how it happened … it needs to get fixed. Right now.”
City council member Michael Kubosh said it can be fixed. He’s been sounding the alarm on the issue, giving multiple interviews on news shows.
Kubosh said he knew nothing of the liens until last week.
“I brought it to the forefront when I found out about it,” he said. “When I learned of it I was startled. I did everything I could to bring it to the light.”
Kubosh said there is outrage in the community over this issue.
“This is what people hate about government,” he said. “This is what gets people disgusted about government, when they see this playing with people’s lives.”
He agrees with Lancton that a single sentence of assurance from Turner is not enough.
“My concern is that you can say everything is fine and good, but the documents are still there,” Kubosh said. “I’ve read the documents where the attorney was asking for more money… these liens that they have, they have to be released. Just saying, ‘We’re not going to execute them,’ that’s not good enough.”
The administration and council must act, he said.
“We need to release these liens totally, and council has that power,” Kubosh said. “This administration has the duty to do that. If the mayor says we’re not going to collect, let’s take it to the next step. Let’s bring it to council, and fully and totally release the liens once and for all and put this behind us.”
Kubosh said he expects council to make sure this does not happen again.
“I want council to pass an ordinance that would forbid us from seeking liens from the estates of those who have died in service to this city,” he said.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.