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Thousands pay tribute to Arizona firefighters

THE NATION

Comrades from out of state are among those to honor 19 killed in the Yarnell Hill blaze.

July 10, 2013|Rick Rojas
  • Former members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew attend a memorial service in Prescott Valley, Ariz., for 19 hotshots who were killed battling the Yarnell Hill fire.
Former members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew attend… (Michael Chow / Arizona Republic )

PRESCOTT VALLEY, ARIZ. — Thousands filled an arena, firetrucks from around the country flanked the streets, crowds stood in a parking lot under a blazing sun -- all gathered to honor the 19 firefighters killed as they battled the fast-moving Yarnell Hill fire.

"Today, I think of them not as having fallen, but rather as having risen, risen far above any of us to a place of peace and comfort," said Marlin Kuykendall, mayor of Prescott, where the firefighters were based.

In a ceremony Tuesday marked by tears, silence and bursts of heartfelt applause, the families of those killed were presented American and Arizona flags, as well as a bronzed Pulaski, the special ax-like tool used by wildland firefighters.

Gov. Jan Brewer lamented the loss of the 19, saying they were "gone at the turn of the wind."

Vice President Joe Biden said that although he had never met the men, he felt as if he knew them because of his own encounters with firefighters. He said he marveled at the courage and dedication that firefighters had shown in some of the darkest moments of his life: the car crash that killed his wife and daughter in 1972, and when his home caught fire.

Biden said the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew members were men of "uncommon valor" -- "an elite unit in every sense of the phrase" -- who rushed to save a town and gave their lives in the process.

"They were heroes long before we knew their names," he said.

The men, who ranged in age from 21 to 43, were overrun by flames June 30 while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire as it threatened the central Arizona town of Yarnell.

The crew was based in Prescott and had strong ties to the community -- five were born in Prescott, and two others were largely raised there.

Nancy Davis, a Prescott resident, said the loss weighed so heavily on her mind she had trouble sleeping. "Some were so young," she said. She said she learned something from the men and their service: She promised to become a Red Cross volunteer. "I just can't keep standing by," said Davis, 58. "I'm going to do more."

In addition to those gathered for the memorial in an arena in neighboring Prescott Valley, thousands more watched the service on a giant video screen in the parking lot, sweating in the blistering afternoon heat. Red Cross volunteers handed out cold water, wet paper towels and bags of ice.

A street outside the arena was lined with firetrucks that had traveled here for the service, some from out of state. Firefighters from across the country attended, the names of their jurisdictions stitched on their uniforms: Globe, Joseph City and Yuma in Arizona, Sacramento, Los Angeles and New York.

A contingent from the Los Angeles County Fire Department had come to show support to the family of Kevin Woyjeck, 21, whose father serves with the department.

"It's an extension of our family. It's a brotherhood," said Rob Orona, a Los Angeles County firefighter who started driving to Arizona after he got off his shift at 5 a.m. "We basically look out for each other."

During the ceremony, the lone survivor among 20 hotshots on the scene, Brendan McDonough, came up on the stage, embraced the officials and recited the "Hot Shot's Prayer."

He remained composed as he spoke the lines, his voice quivering slightly as he reached the end:

For if this is the day on the line I should answer death's call, Lord, bless my hotshot crew. My family, one and all.

--

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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