One year ago this weekend, just north here of Phoenix in Yarnell, 19 firefighters climbed a ridge on a Sunday to take on what would be their final fire together. They were known in their home city, Prescott, AZ, as the men who sawed brush and saved towns, ran hard, laughed together, told the truth. Beyond there , beyond their home and their world of fire, they were known hardly at all. Yet by Monday, the state and the world knew the names of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Scott Craven from The Arizona Republic writes:
PRESCOTT – A year ago they arrived with heads bowed, hands held. The air was silent because no one knew what to say.
They parked their pickups, their SUVs, their sedans outside Mile High Middle School, and when every last space was occupied, they parked along narrow side streets and vacant lots.
Lights blazed from the auditorium, a beacon to those who wanted to be anywhere else.
A few hours earlier on a day that soon would appear on marquees, banners and T-shirts — June 30, 2013 — friends and loved ones of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew gathered to hear the worst news possible.
Nineteen had perished at the Yarnell Hill Fire, trapped by flames that moved so quickly several of them had not even deployed their fire shelters.
The grief began there, and spread through the city, to the vigil sites, to the public square where the hearses passed by, to the arena where thousands would gather to say goodbye.
Nearly a year later, the scenes that contained the drama of those days largely are devoid of reminders of those early days.
But the number 19 still has only one meaning in Prescott, and it reverberates as strongly today as it did then.
Mile High Middle School
Parents arrive one after another, dropping kids off for another day of a three-week summer program at Mile High Middle School. On a mid-June day, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will tour downtown, stopping at City Hall and the courthouse.
The electronic marquee in front scrolls through a programmed announcement, reminding sixth-graders to get their necessary shots, and to “Learn a lot, have fun, give back.”
David Kaiser, a math tutor and summer-camp chaperone, is on his way to meet the students in the cafeteria, making sure they have water and snacks.
A year ago, he was in much the same place. The summer program had ended a week before tragedy redefined a community. But after that night, he was back at the school.
It was shortly before 10 p.m. on June 30 when a fire engine crossed Montezuma Street and followed Carleton Street as it curled toward a narrow concrete bridge leading to Mile High Middle School.
It pulled up next to the cafeteria, the firefighters emerging to hug others wearing the dark-blue T-shirt of the Prescott Fire Department.
Hours earlier, phones across the area lit up with calls and text messages. There was a fatal event involving the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Nineteen men had perished. Please come to Mile High Middle School for details.
Some heard the news on the TV and radio. Others were told by friends and family members. Not long after getting word, they arrived at Mile High Middle School, nestled against a hillside just a few blocks from downtown Prescott.
The media assembled outside amid a handful of TV trucks, a hint of the worldwide attention arriving uncomfortably soon. Prescott police positioned a patrol car in front of the bridge, allowing only those invited to pass.
It began in a valley in Yarnell, but it sank in here. Hundreds of people tried to grasp what had happened, helped by counselors and clergy members. But there was only so much that could be done that night, and by 1 a.m. on July 1, most had returned home having no idea what to do next.
Kaiser, the tutor, was back at the school as a volunteer the next day. He ran errands, served meals and did any chore asked of him. Like much of Prescott at the time, he just wanted to help.
In the year since, life has fallen back onto routine, but Kaiser’s memories of that day often surface.
“It hasn’t seemed like a year,” he says. “You come to a certain point where you have to move on, but I don’t know if we’ve reached that point. This is a small community and people remember. Especially something so hard to forget.”
The entrance to the working station is off-limits after the newest members of the fuels-management crew finished stripping and waxing the floor.
Letters formed with black tiles glisten under a liquid sheen, initials that forever remind occupants which fire team was here first.
When the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew moved in, team rookies were not allowed to step on the G, M, I, H and C that made the entryway a minefield for newcomers.
The team is gone, but the tradition remains. New members of fuel management — workers primarily responsible for clearing brush — must drop and give 50 push-ups if caught putting foot to black tile.
Station 7 has undergone few changes since the day the hotshots left. Rearranged furniture gives offices and meeting rooms a fresh look. The gym sports a cleaner, more organized look, the sign proclaiming it as “Steed’s dojo” (after fitness fanatic and crew captain Jesse Steed) hanging from the ceiling rather than perching on a weight rack.
The whiteboard listing each hotshot and his relative fitness level — an inside joke among crew members — has been replaced. The original is stored off-site, perhaps one day to be displayed as part of a permanent memorial.
The chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire serves just one purpose, to keep out trespassers. But on July 1, it served a much greater purpose.
At about 1 a.m. July 1, a bouquet of flowers was placed at the padlocked gate. A short time later, 19 roses were threaded through the chain link. As sunlight spilled over the horizon, two men hopped from the back of a pickup and wired to the fence a homemade sign containing one word: “Heroes.”
Much more was added before the first member of the national media arrived. Several times each day, the growing memorial fence appeared behind reporters from CNN, NBC, Fox and more; the satellite trucks choked the parking lot of the propane store across E Z Street.
Many visitors drawn to the site placed items symbolic or meaningful, crosses and candles, flowers and flags. Firefighters from across the country took the shirts off their backs, literally, and clipped them to a fence that was running out of empty space.
Over the next few weeks, Station 7 sat at the center of grief and healing. Long after the satellite trucks departed for other stories, visitors continued to walk along the fence in respectful silence.
Months later, trinkets continued to arrive. By the time volunteers removed and stored the thousands of items in September, the memorial had completely covered the fence on three sides, wrapping the station in reverence.
The fence has since returned to its original state. And inside a large shed behind the station where two buggies are parked, it’s as if time has stood still.
The buggies face toward the door as if needed at any second. Names printed on white paper remain affixed to the windows, marking each crew member’s seat. The chore sheets hanging in back read as they did on June 30.
White magnetic strips run along the top of each buggy, hiding a distinctive and perhaps still painful name. Fire officials thought best to cover the Granite Mountain name of the seldom-used buggies.
While the fence appears as it did the morning of June 30, those who look closely will spot two differences.
The first is a heart-shaped chain padlocked to the gate. Donated by an artist, officials decided to leave it in place rather than cut it.
The second is the 19 purple ribbons tied to the fence by the owner of A Shade Beyond, an awning store that has been the station’s next-door neighbor for years. Almost a year later, the owner says she cannot bring herself to talk about June 30, her bottom lip trembling as soon as “19” is mentioned.
Gary Nasch, who builds awnings, recalls seeing the hotshots almost every day. He’d nod at them, exchange small talk and watch mesmerized as they trained.
“They worked out in ways I couldn’t even imagine,” Nasch says. “All of them were in great shape.”
As he reminisces, another memory rises to the top.
“I watched them getting under those protective blankets, doing it as fast as they could,” he said. “And they were real fast. But I read later they never had a chance. The fire moved too quickly.
“They were so young. It’s such a tragedy.”
Prescott High School
A month after Prescott’s schools have let out for summer, 13-year-old Isiah Kaitschuck practices standing broad jumps in an otherwise empty Prescott High stadium.
Earlier the teen raced over the six hurdles placed along the track, his track coach asking him to put in some extra work on his form. Isiah was happy to, since he joined the summer track program to improve his skills.
During a break, the Prescott resident had no trouble remembering how he heard about the fire that took 19 lives. He’d been in his room listening to music when his uncle interrupted to tell him the news.
Isiah soon witnessed the impact it had on the community. As a member of Heights Church, attended by several of the hotshots, he saw the sorrow reflected in everyone’s faces.
That sorrow was palpable a year ago in this very stadium where hundreds gathered to mourn the hotshots.
Flames had stolen the 19 lives just two days before when the high school hosted a hastily prepared candlelight vigil.
In the late afternoon hours of July 2, volunteers gathered near the stage straddling the 50-yard line. They took care not to jostle the bouquets piled high near the front or touch the hundreds of folding chairs placed in perfect rows.
As the coordinator described the night’s duties — manning the gates, handing out electric candles, distributing bottles of water — hands shot up to claim them.
By the time the sun slipped below the horizon and the stadium lights erased the shadows, more than 1,700 people crowded into the home-side bleachers, there to honor and remember the hotshots.
They came to mourn, perhaps even understand. The hushed crowd remained still as families as well as hotshots from across the state filed in to fill every folding chair in front of the stage.
Hours earlier in the high school’s gym, fire officials conducted a press conference that drew a press skeptical of the way the fire was attacked and community members hostile to the press.
None of that mattered during the candlelight vigil. Names were read, bravery celebrated, efforts extolled. All rose to their feet as one when Brendan McDonough, the only Granite Mountain Hotshot who was not with the 19 when the fire overtook them, was introduced.
By the time the crowd switched on and lifted hundreds of flickering battery-powered candles, there were still no answers. But for a few moments, there was peace.
As people in the folding chairs prepared to leave, the announcer asked everyone to form a gantlet from the stage to the parking lot, protecting friends and loved ones from reporters.
So they did, forming two lines that were three and four people deep, creating an aisle roughly 10 feet wide through the end zone, allowing all to disappear into the night.
The tragedy hasn’t lessened its grip on residents almost a year later, Isiah says.
“You still see Granite Mountain stickers everywhere, on cars and in windows,” he says. “My barber has one on his mirror. People still talk about it and, when they do, they can still start to cry.
“There’s been some recovery, but it’s going to be a long time before anybody gets back to their happy place.”
The red, white and blue pallet stands out amid the antiques in the front window. At first glance it appears to be folk art, the piece resembling an American flag.
A closer look reveals its meaning. Nineteen names appear along its stripes. A date stands out below the stars.
The flag is prominently displayed in the window of the Cortez Street Emporium, one of the town’s many antiques shops. Those who made their way to the back, just under the lighted Prescott sign, saw a door covered with 19 faces, their names matching those on the flag.
It is one of the few reminders that are scattered around downtown Prescott. An occasional Granite Mountain sticker pops up on a store window or inside a display case or behind a bar.
Handmade signs wishing families well have disappeared, and marquees urging all to remember the 19 once again feature business-related messages.
On July 7, hundreds came downtown to welcome the 19 home.
That morning, 19 white hearses wound through Phoenix before heading north on Interstate 17 to Carefree Highway and eventually through Wickenburg and Yarnell.
The motorcycle escort came into view first, descending into Prescott. That was followed by a convoy of white hearses that was far too long.
In Courthouse Plaza, firefighters stood side by side with citizens. As hearses rolled by, there were tears and stoic stares. Glasses were raised along Whiskey Row, and respects paid.
This was not how it was supposed to be. The men should have walked off Yarnell Hill and climbed back into white buggies. They were to pull into Station 7 still reeking of ash, preparing their vehicles for the next inevitable call.
But there would be no next call.
The procession finally pulled in to the Yavapai County Fairgrounds, the last stop. Not far away, a plane lifted off, carrying members of the Gila Smokejumpers from Silver City, N.M. They carried with them streamers, each with the name of a Granite Mountain hotshot.
A short time later those streamers fell from the sky, landing near the place 19 men lost their lives.
At the time, photos of 19 men filled the front window of the Cortez Street Emporium. Today those photos cover the door at the back of the shop.
Shop owner Laura Hughes could not bear to place those photos in storage. She wants to remember, and she wants her customers to do the same.
“In this day and age, with so many things going on, it seems we forget so easily,” Hughes says. “I don’t want anyone to forget these men. These guys died heroically. They deserve to be remembered forever.”
The wooden flag in her shop’s window is also meant to remind. As long as she owns the emporium, the piece of folk art will appear each year as the anniversary approaches.
People who see the flag may notice one thing missing. A price tag.
It is not for sale.
Tim’s Toyota Center
On a rapidly warming spring day, two men muscle metal poles from a box truck outside Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, placing them around a large rectangle of bright yellow nylon. In another hour, one of the last midway tents will be assembled and anchored to the asphalt.
They are surrounded by the colorful trappings of a traveling carnival. Two fun houses — Crystal Lils Glass House and the Wacky Shack — stand two stories tall and are easily seen from a busy street fronting the center.
The fried-food trailer, lined with yellow and orange flags flapping in the steady breeze, is missing only the distinctive scent of bubbling oil. Other attractions are scattered across the asphalt in various states of assembly.
In two days the carnival opens for business, just as it did on the same weekend a year ago, not long before the arena hosted an event at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
On July 9, a lengthy convoy of buggies motored below an American flag suspended between extended ladders of fire trucks, each pulled up alongside Tim’s Toyota Center, engines switched off.
Hundreds of hotshots from across the West silently disembarked, about to walk past photos of 19 men they would recognize best with soot on their faces and ash in the air.
The vast majority of the thousands who descended July 9 on Tim’s Toyota Center did so in uniform, whether the T-shirt of fellow hotshots or the dress blues of fire departments across the nation.
The memorial service drew politicians as well, including Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Jan Brewer. Each of the 5,000 seats inside the Prescott Valley arena was occupied by invitees, the public watching on Jumbotrons in the parking lot.
Nineteen names were read, the final bell rung 19 times.
Today the arena is back to business as usual, hosting concerts and sporting events and gun shows.
And for the next four days, a traveling carnival will attract families and thrill-seekers alike, its flashing lights erasing the night’s shadows, the music brightening moods.
In less than a week’s time it will vanish, headed for the next town, leaving behind no trace it was ever here.
Arizona Pioneers’ Home Cemetery
Two weeks before the one-year anniversary, there are still paving stones to be laid and brass plaques to be installed, but everyone agrees on one thing — the memorial erected to the Granite Mountain Hotshots does justice to the crew.
Nineteen plots — 13 of them with remains — are laid out in two rows of nine, with a lone plot at the top of the memorial, placed near the base of the American flag. An expanse of deep-green artificial turf covers the graves. Paving stones provide a walkway, and the 18-inch retaining wall enclosing the memorial offers a resting spot for those who want to reflect.
The memorial slopes gently from the three flagpoles erected late last year, put up shortly after firefighters from Prescott and Phoenix visited to find a single and tattered flag tied to a dead tree.
The 105-year-old cemetery seemed the ideal site for the crew’s final resting place. It was chosen in the days following the June 30 fire.
Pioneers’ Home spreads across a hillside northwest of downtown Prescott. Thumb Butte looms in the distance, its summit visited regularly by hotshots as part of their physical training.
As families struggled with their losses, Butch Hampton volunteered the services of his Prescott funeral home, picking up all expenses related to burying the elite team. He chose the Arizona Pioneers’ Home Cemetery because of its location.
No one questioned his judgment. At the time, the majority of the families were most interested in one thing — making sure the team was laid to rest together. The decision of where to bury them was a burden lifted from their shoulders.
Many firefighters, however, were disappointed the first time they saw the barren hillside dotted with plaques, where many grave sites were outlined in rocks while a handful of others were covered with artificial turf.
Danny Parker was saddened when he found out his son Wade was to be buried there.
“When I was a kid, we’d walk past this place (Pioneers’ Home Cemetery) all the time. We thought it was abandoned.”
Still, Parker never thought twice about interring Wade with the rest of the Granite Mountain team. It wasn’t where his son was buried, but with whom.
“It was an honor to have him buried among these heroes,” Parker says.
The memorial’s completion was almost stymied by cemetery officials, who argued it had not been built to the agreed specifications. But construction was allowed to continue when designers agreed to narrow the memorial by 12 inches on each side so it would not overlap future plots.
On Monday, June 30, friends and loved ones of the Granite Mountain hotshots will gather at the memorial, joined by firefighters from across the state. They will share stories and memories of men who lived together, worked together and faced their final fire together.