The Story of the Southwest Inn

No one knows yet how it started, Friday’s 5-alarm fire that took out the Southwest Inn and caused the death of 4 Houston firefighters working to put it out — and the hospitalization of 14 others. The investigation, says HFD spokesperson Ruy Lozano, will take time. Meanwhile, much of the attention has shifted to the Sharpstown motel’s rather colorful history.


Located on the Southwest Fwy. between Hillcroft and Bellaire, the motel was once known as the Roadrunner. This is how Harris County prosecutor Murray Newman, who in 2002 and 2003 tried 2 men for a murder that had happened there, describes the place:

The Roadrunner was a courtyard-type hotel that was virtually deserted during daylight hours. At night, the place swarmed with people who lived there permanently and they all had their own economic system of trading sex, drugs, money and violence as a means of existence. The Red Carpet [next door] was no better. It had interior rooms and hallways where the residents would leave the doors open as they smoked crack and had sex. The fact that a prosecutor and investigator were walking down the halls in broad daylight didn’t seem to bother them much.

And this is what Newman later tells the Houston Chronicle:

The thing that kept sticking out at us is that it looked OK from the street. . . . There was a pool and a little playground. A family could stop there and not know any better. They would see the sign for $35 a night and think that was a good place to stop. Then night would come and they would hear the gunshots and scuffling, and they’d see people hanging on every balcony doing all sorts of things. It was wild.

In 2006, it seems that the Roadrunner was sold to an entity controlled by Roger Y. Chen, who hasn’t yet made any public statements about the fire. Soon, the motel was renamed and given some cosmetic updates — a conference room was renovated and WiFi introduced.

But it seems some of the same sordid activity that Newman describes continued to happen: Click2Houston’s Robert Arnold is reporting that, in 2013, police “have been called to the motel 25 times for possible peeping toms, reports of burglaries, thefts, assaults, prostitution, drug use and suspicious people.” And Arnold also reports a string of fire-related violations going back to 2009, the motel and restaurant “cited for problems for expired permits, obstruction of exits, problems with fire suppression systems, non working smoke detectors in several rooms and the motel’s overall fire alarm system. . . . However, the most recent inspection found in HFD’s database was on May 8 of this year and showed ‘no action required.'”

On Monday, what remained after the fire was torn down by Cherry Demolition. Tomorrow, a memorial service will be held at Reliant Stadium.

Photo: KUHF via Flickr

17 Comment

  • It seems this place was ran under the 3rd world mentality of neglect, cut corners, ignore problems, and hope nothing happens. 9 out of 10 times nothing happens but when something does happen it’s never a small thing, it’s always a catastrophe.

  • That whole area is 3rd world. I hope some serious criminal charges are filed.

  • THANK YOU for the coverage!
    Sadly, buildings like the Southwest Motel are all too common in our City, and especially in lower middle and working class areas. They’re in too good shape to be condemned outright, but they suffer from all sorts of serious problems as a result of long-term deferred maintenance. They’re frequently victims of what I call “pump and dumps” – where a slum lord buys the place, pumps it for every last penny, and then dumps it (sells it to the next sucker). Rarely, if ever, are these places torn down and replaced with something better.
    Contrary to popular belief, places like the Southwest Motel dot’t stay occupied because people don’t have the choice or because they’re cheap. In fact they can be quite expensive. They stay occupied beause they dont ask questions. Anything goes – so they’re attractive “cribs” for criminals and gang bangers. The thugs love them. The slum lords make a killing from them. But they wreck neighborhoods and ruin lives.
    What can be done? We need a multi-faceted approach. Cities in Texas have to fight the problem with one hand tied behind their back, thanks to State laws that heavily favor land owners. Neighbors are wise to approach private interests who have more leeway in buying and tearing down nuisances. And get creative, too. One slum lord, who controlled a condo complex was brought down by the new HOA regulations. We have to bring these guys down, or there will be more shootings, more overdoses, more 5 alarm fires.

  • “And Arnold also reports a string of fire-related violations going back to 2009, the motel and restaurant “cited for problems for expired permits, obstruction of exits, problems with fire suppression systems, non working smoke detectors in several rooms and the motel’s overall fire alarm system. . . . However, the most recent inspection found in HFD’s database was on May 8 of this year and showed ‘no action required.’”

    Of course if HEB wanted the land for another store, well, the fire marshal would have condemned it.

  • And as usual, the COH will pay lip service about “addressing” the decades long criminal activity and run down conditions at this cesspool. And, as usual, the COH, Harris County,nor the state of Texas will do NOTHING in the end. Except the corrupt/conflicted/co-opted elected & un-elected bureaucrats /politicians will ONLY make themselves look good. They’re all worthless/useless leeches on the public taxpayers. They should all be run out of town /some prosecuted /some put in prison for MANY years. Too bad they give they have immunity from prosecution. Otherwise they’d be facing prison time. The lowlife scum: democrats & republicans alike. Maybe the DA can prosecute the current owner and make him ACCOUNTABLE for ALLOWING the scummy ,trashy CRIMINAL types onto his property. Maybe the families of the dead firefighters will SUE him into bankruptcy.

  • But Patrick, how do you really feel?
    Mr. Chen is en route to Shanghai for a long
    vacation to China’s beautiful outback.
    When was the restaurant vent-hood and vent-hood chimney last steam-cleaned (degreased)?
    Remember Mai’s Restaurant grease fire HFD?
    Fire Marshall’s Office and Health Dept. don’t
    look very good here.

  • I have so many family members in the HFD so this was way too close for comfort. At this time I chose to focus on the victims and survivors:

    WELLBORN, Texas—The Houston firefighter most critically injured in Friday’s 5-alarm motel fire is in a medically-induced coma, according to relatives.
    William Dowling and his fellow firefighters were trapped when the roof of the Southwest Inn collapsed on them.
    Four firefighters were killed while battling the blaze off the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft.
    Dowling remains in very critical condition.
    Dowling’s relatives spoke with KBTX, our sister station in College Station.
    Nancy Wiese, who lives in Wellborn, is Dowling’s cousin. She said the news about Dowling got worse Friday as the day went on.
    “Just shocked…and then when we found out that the roof fell on him and he was pinned,” Wiese said. “Then they said they had to amputate one leg. And then they called and they said they had to amputate the other leg.”
    Dowling’s mom and dad grew up in College Station.
    His father, Rickie Dowling, spoke with us by phone from Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston where his son is being treated.
    “He thought maybe there were occupants in the burning building, so he entered the building with the crew. And, of course, those four perished and he was on top of the debris pinned in,” explained Rickie Dowling.
    William Dowling is a married father of three.
    “We trust in God, and we know that he answers prayers. We’re just thankful that he’s alive,” Rickie Dowling said. “I believe that God will raise him up and he’ll be a great testimony to the grace of God.”
    William Dowling is set to undergo another surgery Tuesday.
    “Keep the family in your prayers,” Wiese asked.
    Dowling has been with the Houston Fire Department for 13 years and was captain at a station in Tomball. He also served in the Marines.

  • Anne Sullivan was a gifted athlete filled with energy who came out of high school with a focus on being a firefighter. But about a month after graduating from the Houston Fire Department Academy, the 24-year-old was among four firefighters who died while searching for people they thought might be trapped in a blazing Houston motel and restaurant.

    “She had a lot of energy and had her heart set at that,” her father, Jack Sullivan, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

    Also killed in the collapse during the Friday afternoon fire at the Southwest Inn were: Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35, who had been with department for 11½ years; Engineer Operator Robert Bebee, 41, who joined the department almost 12 years ago; and Firefighter Robert Garner, 29, who joined the department 2½ years ago.

    The Houston Fire Department said 14 firefighters were taken to the hospital Friday. One remained in critical condition on Saturday and another underwent surgery. The rest were in stable condition and several have been released from the hospital.

    The fire broke out just after noon at a restaurant connected to the Southwest Inn along a busy freeway and 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.

    The fire was the deadliest in the 118-year history of the department.

    Fire Capt. Ruy Lozano said at a news conference Saturday that firefighters were turning to each other and their families as they grieved their colleagues.

    “Anytime one of your brothers or sisters are affected, it’s not just that, it’s also a reminder of the inherent danger of this profession. It reminds you. It reminds your family,” said Lozano, who also said that a memorial for the firefighters is tentatively set for Wednesday.

    Fire officials said they took a high risk in aggressively fighting the fire because they believed people were inside the motel. When a portion of the building collapsed, the firefighters were trapped. “It was an occupied structure, during business hours. There was every indication to think there was a life to be saved,” Lozano said.

    Anne Sullivan, a soccer player and cross country runner in high school, joined the Wharton County Junior College Fire Academy after graduation. She graduated from the Houston Fire Department Academy in April.

    Jack Sullivan said he was on his way home from work Friday when he heard about the fire and realized it was in his daughter’s area. “I’m thinking she could be involved, but maybe not,” he said.

    About 10 minutes later he heard that four firefighters had died in the blaze and began crying in his car. As he approached his house, he saw an emergency vehicle parked outside and knew his daughter was among those who had died.

    “I knew right that instant,” Sullivan said.

  • Thank you, HDTex, for the memorial. Station 68 is our local fire station, and we have called on them in the past. They rescued our dog when he managed to get his mouth stuck in a crate (long story). We’ll always be indebted to them.

  • This is such a sad event. These fire fighters went in to try to save folks who don’t care much about themselves. We are all people, and every life has meaning and value, but I don’t think I would run into a burning building to save a bunch of armed “dope dealing” “gang members”.

  • HPD Officer Troy Blando was murdered there in 1999, too.

  • This all starts with the Occupancy department at the code enforcement office on 1002 Washington ave. Your reports are only partial to the inspections that have taken place over the years, worst of all, all have PASSED! All commercial properties have a cert of occupancy. When this C/O expires, change of ownership, etc it has whats known as an occupancy inspection. A 4 man team, plumbing electrical hvac structural go out to tbe site and inspect the building. The problem is if the owner, contractors cry enough, they will win almost EVERY time. If there is an investigation it starts with the building official and the Occupancy dept and they’re PASSED inspections.

  • jesus, glad i’m not poor or i guess everyone would just assume i’m a dope dealer. keep thinking up thos brilliant policy solutions guys but poverty is a disease that brings down and affects everyone in and around it regardless of your merit. will also cripple code and policy enforcement as well regardless of whats on the books and legal.

    it should be well known by now that new policies will not create an easy and quick solution. just another whack-a-mole game hiding the real issues at play. not enough resources for proper enforcement/inspections and etc.

  • Joel: It really is more expensive to stay in a hotel than an apartment. A person with a drug conviction who wants to get back on his feet may be maligned by a criminal record.

    But landlords rightly try to block career criminals who make lives miserable. It’s obvious these guys were making money off of criminals

  • You are right, Joel. There are often poor families, with children, living among the thugs and gang bangers at places like the Southwest Inn. They usually try to get out as soon as they can, but there are others who come to replace them. And they’re the ones it really hurts it hurts to see. They need to be helped into decent, low-income housing while free-for-alls like the Southwest Inn are razed. (Or, and this is something I’ve been pushing for a while, the slum lords need to be forced to sell places like the Southwest Inn to honest low-income housing developers who will completely gut them, bring them up to code, kick out the gang bangers and thugs, and turn them into decent housing)

  • Kennoh and ZAW, both of you make good and valid points. ZAW, I think a big thing standing in the way of enabling “honest low income housing developers” to create new housing in metro Houston is the NIMBY attitude by homeowners and HOA’s. It seems to me that EVERY time in the last 5 years that some developer has wanted to construct apartments or houses with a low income or section 8 component to the development, the people in the surrounding area rise up and protest. The developments then get scaled back or die.
    To that end, I’m not sure I’d want Section 8 housing next to my home either, but as a community, we do need to stop painting all poor people as criminals and drug users as Joel says.

  • Shadyheightster – that’s because low-income developers usually approach neighborhoods the wrong way. They buy the land, plan the project, apply for the credits, and the neighbors don’t hear about the plans until they get a letter from the TDHCA about it. Then, at the hearing, the developers give a boilerplate presentation about how it’s mixed income housing, they’ll screen tenants, they’ll have after school programs, it’ll look nice, traffic and crime are not a concern, and all of that.
    The better thing to do is to identify general areas for low-income housing, and approach neighbors early on. Start going to Super Neighborhood and Management District meetings; if there are large HOAs in the area, go to those meetings, too. Meet separately with the leaders of these groups, as well as the City Councilman and the State Rep. Lay low for a while, listen to what the neighborhood concerns are, and use them to choose a plan of action for the low-income housing plans.
    In many cases, you’ll hear horror stories about troubled multifamily and commercial buildings. You can’t buy those and turn them into low-income housing – at this point neighbors just want them gone. Neighbors also won’t react kindly if you gobble up open land for low-income housing. But in these cases, you could buy two properties – the one neighbors want demolished, and another nearby that’s bad but not quite as bad. Bulldoze the one neighbors want gone. (You can flip the land at a profit.). Then use tax credits to gut and renovate the ‘not quite as bad’ property.
    In the case of the Southwest Inn – an honest developer might have bought it, as well as the Ramada next door. Bulldoze the Southwest Inn, flip the land for commercial development, and then use tax credits to turn the Ramada into an assisted living facility for low-income seniors. If it had happened soon enough, 5 lives would have been saved.