Thousands attended a memorial yesterday to honor the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died June 30 fighting the unpredictable Yarnell Hill Fire, 85 miles outside Phoenix. Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the service, as did hotshot Crew Chief Darrell Willis, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Brendan McDonough, the surviving member of the hotshots. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, was in attendance, as were Sen. John McCain and other local, state and federal officials. Families were presented with U.S. and Arizona flags, an engraved Pulaski tool, and the IAFF Medal of Honor.
The ceremony was held at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz. It began with pipe and drums followed by the Greater Arizona Congress Choir singing, “On Eagle's Wings,” the National Anthem and an opening prayer given by Pastor Ron Merrell of Heights Church, where six of the hotshots attended church services.
“We are here because we love you,” Merrell said to the families of the fallen.
The prayer was followed by hotshot crew chief, Darrell Willis, who appeared wearing his work boots with Yarnell Hill dirt on them and the same stationwear he wore the day the 19 perished. Willis said each hotshot was like an adopted son.
“I had personnel relationships with them,” he said. “I loved them.”
Willis said the hotshots approached their jobs with joy and excellence, keeping safety always top-of-mind. They were among the most elite teams in the nation, serving both on a local and national level an to combat wildfires.
“I have full confidence in their decision-making process,” he said to the families. “They wanted to make sure they came home to you. This crew was the real deal. They brought everything to the table, they give it all. They were right and tight.”
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said there’s always a threat of something going wrong on the fireground, the hotshot crew knew the risks and accepted them. He said the team was the top in the nation and did the job with excellence.
“It was an honor to be their chief … it was a privilege to know them,” he said, fighting back tears. “My only wish is that my tears could wash away the pain we all feel. Rest in peace; you will be missed but never forgotten.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer also spoke to honor the 19 fallen. Brewer said they were protectors, safeguarding friends, family and strangers alike.
“While we grieve and mourn the tragic loss of these great men and console their beautiful families, we can’t despair,” Brewer said. “God teaches us not to despair but to have hope.”
Brewer also thanked Vice President Joe Biden and asked him to send her thanks to President Obama personally for the White House’s continued assistance and for the approval of federal resources to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire.
“To the Yarnell [firefighters], we will never forget your sacrifice and that of your families,” she added. “It is our duty now to help and protect your families. May God bless and watch over them and may God protect the first responders who serve every day.”
Brewer was followed by Vice President Joe Biden who first thanked federal, state and local officials in attendance. Biden then shared a personnel story, the death of his first wife and daughter in a car crash and the shock, fear and disbelieve that happens when a person loses a spouse or a child. Firefighters workingfor one hour and were able to save his two sons who also were in the car, he said — noting his profound respect and thanks for U.S. firefighters.
“[The hotshots] motto sums them up: duty, integrity, respect. They saw their jobs as a duty, a duty to their fellow citizens,” he said about the fallen hotshots. “They understood what few do —that integrity is measured on whether you respond to the needs of your neighbors.”
In addition to other speakers, IAFF President Harold Schaitberger explained how the Yarnell Hill Fire was sparked by lightning storms and worsened by a sweltering heat wave and unpredictable winds. Regardless, the Granite Mountain Hotshots went to work — cutting lines, digging, scrapping and fighting the fire. Gale force winds made a 180° turn, making it was a matter of minutes before the hotshots were facing the fire straight on: a burnover was coming.
“These 19 comrades did what they were trained to do,” he said. “They used the equipment they had. They instinctively had each other’s back and while that combination of skills and commitment had gotten them out of a number of tight situations before, two Sundays ago it wasn’t enough for 19 of Prescott’s best.”
Schaitberger also explained how these wildland firefighters work outside the public eye, saving lives and properties without media attention. Often, they are deployed in the wildness for days and weeks together, creating a unique bond.
“Most people can’t comprehend the culture and the bond of our occupation,” he said. “We live and work and eat our meals together. … They were each other’s second family.”
After receiving a standing ovation, surviving hotshot Brendan McDonough, followed and shared with the audience the team’s prayer:
If I am called to duty, Lord, to fight the roaring blaze
Please keep me safe and strong. I may be here for days.
With my fellow crew members, as we hike up to the top
Help us cut enough line, for this blaze to stop.
Let my skilled hands be firm and quick, let me find those safety zones, as we hit and lick.
For if this day on the line, I should answer death’s call, bless my hotshot crew, my family one and all.
“I miss my brothers,” McDonough said. “We are here today to remember them. I love my family all of you. Thank you for supporting me.”
The memorial ended with the sounding of bells, a Marine flyover and a rendition of “Amazing Grace” by the Arizona Firefighters and Public Safety Massed Pipes and Drums.