PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) – Thousands of firefighters and law enforcement officers from New York to California filed into a northern Arizona arena Tuesday to mourn 19 firefighters killed in a wildfire and to support the families they left behind.
The memorial in Prescott Valley began with a choir singing “On Eagle’s Wings” as Vice President Joe Biden sang along from the sidelines.
Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, current Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and members of the state’s congressional delegation also were at the memorial. Biden and Brewer are set to speak at the memorial service.
Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun by smoke and fire while battling a blaze on a ridge in Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
One member survived — Brendan McDonough, 21, who was serving as a lookout and wasn’t in the immediate burn zone. A stone-faced McDonough filed onto the stage and will offer what’s called “The Hot Shot’s Prayer,” which ends with a line that will most certainly be difficult for the young man to read: “For if this day on the line … I should answer death’s call … Lord, bless my hot shot Crew … My family, one and all.”
Outside, each of the 19 firefighters was represented by a U.S. flag and a purple ribbon with his name. A bronze statue of a wildland firefighter with an ax in hand, stood in front as if guarding the arena.
Inside, each of the firefighters’ names scrolled across an electronic board on two sides of the minor league hockey arena. Lined up in front of the stage were 19 sets of firefighting gear, complete with commemorative Pulaski tools similar to the ones the elite crew uses to dig lines around fires.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo is expected to give the tools to the firefighters’ families, along with flags that had flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of them.
Alumni of the Granite Mountain Hotshots sat in the front rows, with about 1,000 members of the fallen firefighters’ families surrounding them in seats on the floor of the arena. Those who first responded to the Yarnell Hill Fire sat in the rows behind them.
Capt. Steve Brown of the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Fire District brought 17 others in his department of 85 uniformed firefighters. The job, he said, is driven first by the desire to help others and, secondly, by the excitement of not knowing where you’re headed when that alarm sounds.
Those feelings — along with long work days often away from family — are shared among firefighters regardless of where they’re stationed, he said.
“You can’t judge a person till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” he said. “If you do the job, you understand the job. That’s where the camaraderie comes in.”
Being part of the brotherhood doesn’t come automatically when someone joins a firefighting crew, Steve Rushing of the Burbank, Calif., Fire Department said. Each has to earn respect and gain the trust of others through hard work and commitment, he said.
McDonough was assigned to give a “heads-up on the hillside” for the team on that fateful afternoon, said Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward. He notified the crew of the rapidly changing weather conditions that sent winds swirling erratically and caused the fire to cut off his team’s escape route, then swiftly left his post for safety.
Ward said it’s just been too tough on McDonough, but that “he did exactly what he was supposed to.”
“He’s trying to deal with the same things that we’re all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that’s compounded being there on the scene,” Ward said last week.
The highly specialized crew was part of a small community of Hotshots nationwide, just about 110 of the 20-person teams mostly stationed west of the Mississippi River.
The memorial service, called “Our Fallen Brothers: A Celebration of Life,” will be the last of a handful of vigils for the men before the first of 19 funerals begin later in the week.
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