The Herald Bulletin

Afternoon Update

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July 4, 2013

Ariz. town remembers the 4th, fallen firefighters

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — They remembered the Fourth, but also the 19.

At Bistro St. Michael on Whiskey Row in this old West town, 19 candles burned beneath red, white and blue bunting, one for each firefighter killed last weekend battling a wildfire not far from the place they called home.

In a quiet neighborhood near the high school, which at least five of them attended, 19 miniature U.S. flags were planted in front yards, each pole tied with the purple ribbon that commemorates fallen firefighters.

At the makeshift memorial on the fence that wrapped around the elite Hotshots firefighting team's headquarters, people left 19 potted plants, 19 pinwheels, 19 handwritten cards, 19 religious candles.

On a day meant to ponder the nation's birth, and those who built and defended it over 237 years, Prescott's residents had 19 of their neighbors, their friends, their relatives to remember.

"I just wanted to thank them and let them know that they're heroes and that they're missed," said Susan Reynolds, who hung a piece of fabric with an expression of thanks on a string of panels that hung like a prayer flag on the fence.

Away from the celebrations, public memorials and the fireworks planned for later Thursday, some of the fallen firefighters' families were quietly trying to come to terms with their own personal loss. Occasionally, relatives would emerge to speak about the fallen.

"There's no celebration today," said Laurie McKee, whose 21-year-old nephew, Grant McKee, died in the fire. "We're doing OK, but it's still up and down."

McKee's father and aunt picked up items recovered from his truck on Wednesday night, and were comforted when the fire chief told them that Grant McKee had been part of "the Navy Seals of firefighting," his aunt said. His family was planning to spend the day at home, visiting with relatives flying in for his funeral.

Initial autopsy results released Thursday showed the firefighters died from burns, carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, or a combination of the factors. Their bodies, which are in Phoenix for the autopsies, were expected to be taken 75 miles northwest to Prescott on Sunday. Each firefighter will be in a hearse, accompanied by motorcycle escorts, honor guard members and American flags.

A memorial service planned for Tuesday is expected to draw thousands of mourners, including firefighters' families.

The Hotshots crew had deployed Sunday to what was thought to be a manageable lightning-caused forest fire near the small town of Yarnell, about 60 miles from Phoenix. Violent winds fueled the blaze and trapped the highly trained firefighters, most of them in the prime of their lives. The Hotshots deployed their fire shelters, which can briefly protect people from flames, but only the crew's lookout survived.

The nation's biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and dry conditions that caused the fire to explode. A team of forest managers and safety experts is investigating what went wrong and plan to release initial findings by the weekend.

Nearly 600 firefighters continue to fight the blaze, and officials expected it to be up to 85 percent contained by Thursday night. The fire has destroyed more than 100 homes and burned about 13 square miles. Yarnell remained evacuated, but authorities hope to allow residents back in by Saturday.

Operations section chief Carl Schwope said the morale of firefighters is going up as they move toward full containment. He said they want to put the fire out as a way to pay their respect to the fallen firefighters.

"I think we're getting to the point now where this fire's almost out, we'll all go home and it's a whole new reality," he said.

Meanwhile, Prescott officials were working to retool the city's traditional over-the-top celebration in the wake of the tragedy. They plan to still shoot off fireworks despite tinder-dry conditions as the community of 40,000 tries to mourn its dead without compromising its history. The mantra for days has been celebration, not grief.

Fire officials say they will be able to deploy the pyrotechnics safely, pouring water on the detonation area if necessary.

Across town from the July Fourth carnival, the wife of the Hotshots leader and founder spoke publically about her husband, Eric Marsh, for the first time since his death.

"Eric was 90 percent a Granite Mountain Hotshot, and the 10 percent was left for us," Amanda Marsh said.

Greg Fine, whose daughter Leah had been engaged to McKee, circled the memorial at the Hotshots headquarters, taking photos of the tributes to the man who was to be his son-in-law.

On his shirt, he wore a laminated photo of McKee with his daughter, who was grinning with short bleach blond hair. They had been engaged for 1 1/2 years. Fine said his daughter is avoiding the crowds. She and her father plan to spend the afternoon with McKee's family at home.

"We're going to probably laugh and cry and have something to eat, and then laugh and cry some more," he said. Then he said he was glad other residents were celebrating the Fourth.

"Life has to go on," he said.

 

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