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Sole Hot Shot fire survivor: "I miss my brothers"

5:33 PM, Jul 9, 2013   |    comments
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By Jim Walsh, Scott Craven and Eddi Trevizo, The Republic | azcentral.com

Vice President Joe Biden praised the valor, courage and sacrifice of the Granite Mountain Hotshots killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire during a somber memorial service in Prescott Valley on Tuesday.

"They saw their jobs not as jobs but as a duty to defend their fellow citizens,'' Biden said, citing their commitment to their mission of duty, integrity and respect.

"Firefighting is not what they did. It's who they were,'' he said, and quoted an old saying: "All men are created equal, but then a few become firefighters.''

Biden said firefighters had saved his life and the lives of family members on several occasions, an example of their special purpose in society.

"We didn't have the privilege of knowing any one of these heroes personally but I know them,'' he said. "A cliff jumper, a rock climber, a mountain biker. A football player, an Iraqi vet, a Marine, a son of a firefighter.

"I know them. They were firefighters. I know them because they saved the life of my two sons when a tractor-trailer broadsided my daughter, my wife and my two sons. My wife and daughter died. But for my fire service, my two sons would have, but the jaws of life working for over an hour and a half saved them. They saved my guys.

"My firefighters. Like all firefighters, they saved my life in the middle of the snowstorm when I had to be rushed to the hospital with a 30 percent chance of living with a cranial aneurysm. It was my fire company.

"Oh, I know them. You saved my home and my wife, Jill, when lightning struck my home and engulfed all three floors. The thickest of smoke that no one could enter, but thank God ...

"Jill and I know you. You're a rare breed."

He then talked directly to the families of the fallen.

"We owe you, the families, a gigantic debt, far beyond what we can ever pay.

"I also know from personal experience, at this moment, as unbelievable as it is, as unbelievable as it is to fathom it, that a day will come when the memory of your husband, your son, your dad, your brother will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.

"My prayer for all of you is that that day will come sooner than later, but I promise you, as unbelievable as it is, it will come. It will come."

Biden was planning to meet with the families of the fallen firefighters after the ceremony, according to a spokesman for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.

Dan Bates, of the United Firefighters of Yavapai County, referred to the fallen firefighters as "the saints of Prescott,'' who were fulfilling God's plan for their lives while making the ultimate sacrifice to protect Yarnell.

"In all my heart, I know that God was guiding them home,'' Bates said.

He said the crew spent more than 500 hours battling wildfires and also trained their fellow firefighters. Their most recent contribution was fighting the Dulce Fire on Granite Mountain, for which their unit was named, just a couple of weeks before.

"Anything Prescott needed, anything Arizona needed or the nation needed, these hotshots stepped up and filled the void,'' Bates said. "Their courage never wavered.''

He also singled out Brendan McDonough, the only crew member who lived. McDonough was serving as a lookout, warning the crew that the winds had changed and then changing position to save his own life."

Bates got the longest and loudest applause of any speaker.

"You have been in my heart and all of our hearts since June 30. I believe in my heart that you have been spared for a purpose,'' he said.

He noted that one of the hotshots sent a text to his mother shortly before the deadly incident. Bates said the firefighter's mother was concerned about him working during the past month in intense heat.

"Mom, the fire is getting big,'' the text read. "there's a ridge down there, we need to protect it. We will rest later.''

Each family was presented with the International Association of Firefighters' gold medal of honor.

McDonough, wearing a Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt, read "the hotshot prayer'' for the crew and then received hugs from the dignitaries onstage, including Biden and Brewer.

"Thank you," he said to the crowd. "and I miss my brothers.

"We're here today to remember them. I love my family, all of you that are out there. Thank you," he said, before moving quickly down the stairs and behind the stage.

Outside the arena, David Mosier, a Prescott resident for two years, watched the service with his daughters on jumbo video screens in the parking lot.

"It's obviously a tragedy in this region. I think everyone is hurting. I think this is helping everyone to heal,'' he said. "I heard about (the 19) through the news. I stopped at the police station on Sunday and I saw families crying, who had lost someone in the fire.

"I also attended Monday's memorial. That in itself shows how this town has come together. There were two or three thousand people. It shows how much not just the community, but the state, has given to support the families,'' Mosier said.

A firefighter ran a bell, symbolizing "the final alarm,'' and a bugler played "Echo Taps" as mourners wiped away tears. A U.S. Marine Corps flyover, featuring the missing man formation, honored the firefighters.

A huge group of bagpipers and and a singer performed "Amazing Grace'' as the crowd began to file out.

Before the memorial started, the Greater Arizona Congress Choir sang "On Eagle's Wings'' as dignitaries including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of Homeland Security, respectfully looked on.

A long line of firefighters wearing Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirts, followed by first responders in their dress-blue shirts, walked in a solemn procession and were seated in front of the stage.

A display of helmets with each firefighter's name and other fire gear sat near the stage, next to posters featuring the men's pictures.

An honor guard followed, with firefighters carrying a silver ax, a U.S. flag and an Arizona flag. The choir then sang the national anthem.

"It is a privilege to join the families and friends of those whose lives and sacrifice we honor today, the 19 brave men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,'' McCain said in a prepared statement.

"I wasn't lucky enough to know them personally. I sure wish I had.

"These were not men merely worth knowing - they were men to admire. They were men to emulate if you have the courage and character to live as decently and honorably as they lived. Not many of us can. But, we can become better people by trying to be half as true, half as brave, half as good as they were, and to make our lives, too, count for something more than the sum of our days."

In the opening prayer, Teaching Pastor Ron Merrell of the Heights Church in Prescott prayed for the surviving family members.

"We thank you so much, God, for these heroes who laid down their lives for us,'' he said.

Darrell Willis, Prescott Fire Department wildlands division chief, honored the fallen firefighters and defended their actions. It was Willis who recited the 23rd Psalm before a team of firefighters retrieved their fallen brothers' bodies after the fire.

"I have full confidence in the their decision-making process. They were diligent students of fire,'' he said.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo praised the dedication and the professionalism of the firefighters.

"There is always a threat of something going wrong, there's always a threat of a risk, there's always a threat of, God forbid, being injured or killed,'' Fraijo said.

"It was an honor to be their chief. It was a privilege to know them,'' he said. "What happened on Yarnell Hill is still raw and probably will be for a long time.''

The name of each firefighter was read during the service, a stirring roll call, as a firefighter ran a silver bell.

A Pulaski tool, used to create fire breaks in wildland firefighting, was presented to each grieving family along with a U.S. flag and an Arizona flag.

A slideshow featured candid photos of the firefighters as singers and a flutist performed "You Raise Me Up.''

Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall praised the hotshots and said, "Prescott is a small town. What I pledge to you is that we will do our best to remember each man.''

Gov. Jan Brewer said, "They were 19 heroes, gone at the turn of the wind.

"Our hearts are full of profound sadness today, but they also are full of great pride.''

She thanked President Barack Obama "for his kind words in the face of this tragedy'' and thanked Biden and other U.S officials for the hard work of federal firefighting crews who eventually tamed the fire.

Before the service , authorities asked the media and spectators not to take photographs and to respect the privacy of family members who stepped off a caravan of tour buses, each one decked out with a Granite Mountain Hotshots logo on passenger doors.

Family members walked between two fire buggies, the all-terrain vehicles used by the firefighters when they responded to the deadly incident. The hoods of the buggies were decorated with black bows to mark the somber occasion.

The deaths from Arizona's deadliest wildfire have saddened and touched people throughout Arizona and nation. A national investigation is under way to learn what happened and to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

The ceremony drew firefighters from as far away as New York, New Hampshire and Florida, who gathered to pay their respects to their fallen brothers and their grieving families.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, based in Prescott, perished on June 30 in a burnover incident blamed on a sudden shift of unruly monsoon winds.

A lone lookout, who alerted his crew members about the sudden change in winds and then followed team protocols, escaped death in the incident, which happened about a quarter of a mile southwest of Glen Ilah, a small community near Yarnell that was devastated by the blaze.

Many Glen Ilah residents returned Monday to their homes - or what is left of them - after the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office lifted a weeklong evacuation order.

Residents reacted with a mixture of shock, relief and sadness when they discovered an erratic swath of damage, with some homes spared and others destroyed. Many vowed to rebuild their homes, including Richard Mayer, a retired sheriff's deputy who sifted through ashes to recover "odds and ends.''

"You have a wildfire like this, it doesn't have any sympathy for anybody. It takes whatever it wants, and it did,'' Mayer said.

At 8 a.m., dozens of Hotshot buggies representing crews from across the West pulled out from a middle school just blocks from Jim's Toyota Center. The procession pulled up alongside the arena where hundreds of men and women in T-shirts, khakis and boots lined up single file, among the first to be admitted.

Most stood silently, looking at the person in front of them. The lines at one point stretched the length of the arena.

Jeff Campbell of the Gila Hotshots said it was a solemn and difficult occasion.

"The Hotshot community is a tight-knit group," he said when asked if he was surprised so many wildland firefighters were here.

He did not want to comment further.

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