7/14/2013 6:00:00 AM Column: Honoring men of uncommon valor
Golden Valley Fire Chief Tom O’Donohue was one of thousands of firefighters from across the nation – and Canada and Mexico – to stand and salute the families of 19 men killed fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30. The families were on the bus.
Brendan McDonough, the sole surviving member of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew that died on June 30 battling the Yarnell Hill Fire, speaks at their memorial service. “I miss my brothers,” he told thousands of people in attendance.
KINGMAN - They died on a mountainside late on a Sunday afternoon fighting the tragic and deadly Yarnell Hill Fire.
Nineteen men, members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hot Shots, were betrayed by fickle winds and bad luck. Nineteen men out of 20 were killed when high, erratic winds shifted on a mountainside and a raging wildfire shifted with it, cutting off the team's escape route and robbing them of a safety zone.
The lone survivor saw the flames make an abrupt turn. He warned them by radio, but the fire was ravenous, the winds were high, and miracles were nowhere to be found.
Not this time.
On Tuesday, thousands of firefighters and civilians came to Prescott from around the continent and even from across the pond to mourn and pay tribute to the fallen Hot Shots.
Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Jan Brewer spoke about the men to roughly 6,100 mourners inside the Tim's Toyota Center stadium and thousands more who watched on video screens outside. Who knows how many watched the live broadcast throughout the state of Arizona?
Among those who were present were chiefs and firefighters representing five Mohave County departments.
Most of them were there to honor the dead the best way they know how: In service to those who were there to mourn them.
Twenty two-man paramedic teams worked inside and outside the stadium. They answered several medical calls during the service. People fainted after standing too long in the heat. There was a trip and fall call and another for a diabetic.
Tom O'Donohue and Patrick Moore, the fire chiefs of the Golden Valley Fire Department and the Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District, respectively, said the calls were routine and the guys did an excellent job.
While Moore ran the operation from inside the stadium, O'Donohue was in his dress uniform, as were firefighters who came from England and Puerto Rico.
They came from as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico.
They came from New York City and all over California and from almost every state in between.
Virtually every fire department in Arizona had at least someone there.
"It was tough," said Moore. "We had a job to do and we focused on that, but there was just no way you couldn't be moved by everything that was going on."
What was going on was a final farewell for men gone, quite literally, in a flash.
Biden said they were men of uncommon valor.
He was absolutely correct. This reporter has covered several wildfires over the years and on a few occasions was allowed to photograph the battle on the lines.
To walk toward a large wildfire armed with nothing but shovels, chainsaws, axes and guts is an act that requires a human being to reach inside and dig deep. Senses and instincts go on high alert and the brain tells the body to quit rebelling in the presence of skin-searing, eye-watering, breath-stealing heat and smoke.
That's what wildland firefighters do, all summer long as they travel from fire to fire in the mountains and grasslands of the American West, risking all to protect the lives and property of strangers.
For the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, the Yarnell Hill Fire was personal. The small town was close to home. The blaze would ultimately burn 13 square miles and destroy 114 structures in addition to taking 19 lives.
The tragedy was also personal to countless people in Prescott who knew these men. Some of them, they knew their entire lives.
Eight of the 19 were born and raised in Prescott or moved there at a young age. They attended Prescott schools and played Little League and high school football.
Three of them were engaged.
Three of them were expectant fathers and nine of them were fathers. Between them they left behind nine wives and 10 children, parents and siblings and girlfriends. They left behind best friends and coworkers and neighbors.
Two were cousins. To a man, they loved the outdoors. They loved fighting fires. Some were free spirits and others were dedicated family men.
So saying goodbye was every bit as difficult as one would imagine. The death of one person in the line of duty traumatizes a community. The news that 19 had perished was almost impossible to accept.
The human brain wasn't meant to rapidly process such wholesale tragedy.
But reality certainly set in by Tuesday, nine days after a paramedic jumped out of a helicopter a few hundred yards from where it all went down and confirmed 19 fatalities.
At the service, poster-size photographs of each man stood in front of flags and behind the boots and wildland firefighting gear they used on the job.
The oldest was born in 1976, the youngest in 1992. Most were born in the 1980s. Old enough to be men, young enough to die far too soon.
Widows or other relatives of the 19 were given the Medal of Valor, awarded to each of the men posthumously.
Brendan McDonough, the sole Hot Shot to survive, recited "The Hot Shot's Prayer."
The last stanza hit home for everyone who listened:
For if this day on the line ...
I should answer death's call ...
Lord, bless my Hot Shot crew ...
My family, one and all.
McDonough said he missed his brothers. He received a solemn standing ovation.
"It was sobering. I don't think there was a dry eye in the place after that. The brotherhood of the fire service is global," said O'Donohue, who said the memorial service was exactly what he expected it would be - sad beyond grief.
"The family members were on the floor of the stadium. There must have been hundreds of them. They were all cried out. I think they were there for us as much as we were there for them."
For Moore, seeing so many firefighters from so many cities and towns and countries was overwhelming.
"They had more than 60 bagpipers," he said. "There were so many honor guards and big drum sets. It just really hit home for me when I heard the bagpipes. Bagpipes always do that to me."
Following the service, as charter buses carried grieving relatives away from the stadium, O'Donohue and thousands of other firefighters lined the sidewalk on both sides of Main Street.
Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Article comment by:
A touching tribute. Karen my deepest condolences go out to you and your family.
Posted: Monday, July 15, 2013
Article comment by:
KDM - Thank you for the article. Our prayers will continue for all involved.
Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2013
Article comment by:
Thank you, this article was beautifully written and touched my heart. My nephew, Garret, was one of the nineteen hotshots. Part of the grieving process is trying to figure out what happened, so discovering this article was a gift. I will pass it on to the rest of my family . Having spent some time in Kingman, teaching in Golden Valley, I feel a connection with the town and the people. Such a little town with such a big heart. I guess all I wanted to say is thank you. Karen Zuppiger Groves