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Victims on hotshot team mourned by fellow firefighters

Several members of the hotshot team killed by the Yarnell blaze had roots in Southern California and were from firefighting families.

July 01, 2013|By Samantha Schaefer and Ruben Vives
  • Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, right, talks about Kevin Woyjeck during a press conference Monday. Woyjeck's father, Joe, is a Los Angeles County fire captain.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, right, talks about Kevin Woyjeck… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Kevin Woyjeck had firefighting in his blood.

His father is a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain. Woyjeck followed in his footsteps, hoping to eventually work side by side with his dad, Joe Woyjeck.

He was part of the elite wildland firefighting unit assigned to battle a fast-moving blaze near Yarnell, Ariz. He and 18 firefighters were killed Sunday when flames overtook them.

The tragedy was especially felt in California, where five of the dead firefighters grew up. Woyjeck, 21, of Seal Beach, Grant McKee, 21 of Orange County, Sean Misner, 26, of the Santa Ynez Valley, and Hemet natives William "Billy" Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, 30, perished with members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew as the evacuated town of Yarnell was ravaged by a wildfire.

Flags across Los Angeles County and elsewhere were at half-staff to honor the fallen men as tributes poured in.

"This is an unspeakable tragedy for the entire country and a grim reminder of the dangers that first responders face on a daily basis," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement.

Woyjeck started as a Fire Explorer, a Los Angeles County Fire Department mentorship and training program, and was a paramedic in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to LAFD Inspector Keith Mora.

"It truly breaks my heart that I stand here and speak on behalf of my profession and my department, and on behalf of the Woyjeck family," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said as he tried to hold back tears. "But I also have solace in knowing that Kevin was doing what he truly enjoyed and that was being a firefighter."

Osby said Woyjeck was excited about his new job in Arizona and looked forward to the day he would become a Los Angeles County firefighter. 

Woyjeck looked out for others and was committed to following in his father's footsteps, said Kevin Hashemi, 20, who met Woyjeck about two years ago in the Fire Academy in Southern California.

"Everyone is shaken up," Hashemi said. "Firefighting is a brotherhood. Any death affects the whole community, but when you know someone it's that much worse."

Warneke, who was in ROTC in high school, joined the Marines and served one tour in Iraq. When he had completed his service, he got married and used the GI Bill to become a firefighter, said his grandmother Nancy Warneke. The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew was his first fire job.

He and his wife, Roxanne, met in high school and were expecting their first child. They recently moved to Tucson to live near her family, Nancy Warneke said.

"It's hard to believe it's all happened, but he died doing what he believed in," his grandmother said. "We can be proud."

He loved the outdoors and wildlife, and he and his wife hoped to plant a garden at their new place, she said. He liked cooking and his grandmother's zucchini bread, a few loaves of which were reserved for him in her freezer.

"I guess I'll find someone else to give them to," she said.

MacKenzie was a 2001 Hemet High graduate who joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. He moved to the Prescott Fire Department about two years ago, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported. He became a firefighter just like his father, former California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Mike MacKenzie.

When MacKenzie's childhood friend Dav Fulford-Brown heard about the Arizona fire Sunday, he said, " 'Oh my God, that's Chris' crew.' I started calling him and calling him and got no answer."

An avid snowboarder, MacKenzie lived his life to the fullest and was "fighting fire just like his dad," Fulford-Brown told the Press-Enterprise.

"He was finishing his credentials to get promoted and loved the people. It's an insane tragedy," he said.

McKee attended Newport Harbor High School, his neighbor said. He had just joined the Granite Mountain hotshot crew after his cousin, 23-year-old Robert Caldwell, got him a job. Both died Sunday.

Sean Misner, 26, leaves a wife who is seven months pregnant, Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, told the Associated Press. He was the nephew of Montecito Fire Department Operations Chief Terry McElwee and grandson of former Fire Chief Herb McElwee, according to the department.

Misner played varsity football and participated in the school's sports medicine program, where he wrapped sprained ankles and took care of sidelined athletes.

"He was a team player, a real helper," Swanitz said. "He was very passionate and committed to his career as a firefighter."

Misner played several positions on his high school's football team, including wide receiver and defensive back. He was slim, but it didn't stop him from tackling his opponents, retired football coach Ken Gruendyke said.

"He played with tremendous heart and desire," Gruendyke said. "He wasn't the biggest or fastest guy on the team, but he played with great emotion and intensity."

samantha.schaefer@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.

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