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Yarnell Hill Fire: Fallen firefighters were in prime of their lives

8:08 AM, Jul 2, 2013   |    comments
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Portraits of the 19 Prescott firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire emerged Monday as a grieving state saluted their service and struggled to come to grips with the scope of the tragedy.

Some of the fallen members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots, 14 of whom were still in their 20s, hailed from firefighting families. Another young firefighter joined the team after his mother's cancer death. One balanced his passions of firefighting and ministry. Two others were cousins. Several were Marines.

At least three of the men who died have babies on the way.

The firefighters' bodies were recovered and taken Monday to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner in Phoenix in a solemn caravan of white vans that was met by the Phoenix Police Honor Guard, a large American flag and two fire ladders stretched across the street.

The Yarnell blaze nearly annihilated the elite 20-member squad in the worst firefighting death toll in a wildfire since the Griffith Park Fire killed more than 25 volunteer firefighters in Los Angeles in 1933.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called the deaths "unbearable" and vowed to honor the service of the firefighters who died and "do whatever is necessary to bring this fire under control, before it causes any more hardship."

"Nineteen lives were lost - brave men who gave their lives to defend friends, neighbors and perfect strangers," Brewer said. "The Yarnell fire is the deadliest wildfire in Arizona state history and our nation's deadliest in 80 years. To friends and family of those lost yesterday (Sunday), I know we can never fully repay the sacrifices made by your loved ones."

The deaths prompted a dramatic public outpouring around the state. Makeshift memorials appeared at the hotshot crew's engine house and elsewhere around Yavapai County. A memorial was held at Prescott's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a vigil was held in downtown Phoenix.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo read the list of names and ages of the casualties at an afternoon news conference. He praised the hotshot team as "dedicated" and "hardworking" and respectful, although they were known to play pranks on him and each other. Fraijo said he never heard any of them complain.

"Very young crew. Very energetic crew. Very professional crew," Fraijo said.

They ranged in age from 21-year-olds Grant McKee and Kevin Woyjeck to 43-year-old Eric Marsh, but most of the group were in their 20s. Four firefighters were between the ages of 30 and 36.

"It's a younger man's game," Fraijo said. "Once again, these people keep themselves in exceptional condition. They have considerable weight to carry. They can walk miles to get into strategic locations. Oftentimes, they'll sleep on the ground and eat stuff that we wouldn't eat."

Krista Carter of Paulden said she learned details about the inferno that killed her husband Travis Carter, 31, and his colleagues from a series of official briefings. She was told the fire got up to 180 degrees and that there was an abrupt shift in the wind. The fire went from moving north to moving southeast. She stressed that her husband's team "knew exactly what they were doing."

"When hotshots go into a fire, before they go they plan an escape route and they usually even have a couple," Krista Carter told The Arizona Republic. "And they say that - you know of course it is not facts - that both of their escape routes were consumed with flames and they had no time to do anything but deploy their blankets."

Heartbreaking details about the firefighters' biographies revealed that many of the young men were at what should have been the beginning of their lives. Many were starting families, or had recently done so.

Three couples were expecting: Sean Misner, 26, and his wife, Amanda; Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne; and Anthony Rose, 23, and his girlfriend, Tiffany.

Wade Parker, 22, was set to marry his fiancee, Alicia Owens, in October. He is the son of Capt. Dan Parker of the Chino Valley Fire Department.

Andrew Ashcraft, 29, and his wife, Juliann, had four children.

Juliann Ashcraft said she learned about the firefighters' deaths on television with her children. She said the community has pulled together and she has been offered everything she needs.

"They died heroes and we'll miss them," she told The Arizona Republic. "We love them."

Misner's wife, Amanda, is expecting their first child in late August or early September, said Jason Lambert of Santa Ynez, Calif., a longtime friend who served as best man at Misner's wedding.

She plans to name the boy Jaxon. A memorial fund has been established to help with his education.

Misner's grandfather was a fire chief in Montecito, Calif., Lambert said, and his uncle and cousin also are firefighters.

"He had firefighting in his blood," Lambert said.

Family friend Phyllis Barney of Glendale described Rose as a sweet young man who never had a harsh word for anyone. She said Rose's girlfriend, Tiffany, is in her third trimester of pregnancy.

"He loved children," she said, her voice breaking. "He was going to make an absolutely incredible daddy."

She said Rose came from Illinois when he was about 16, finished school and worked for the Crown King Fire Department before moving to Prescott.

Marsh, the crew's superintendent, was a leader who enjoyed his job, his uncle Gary Marsh of Jefferson, N.C., said Monday in a telephone interview with The Republic.

"He loved life. He was just a fine young man," Gary Marsh said of his nephew. "It's just a shock. We can't believe it."

Woyjeck, who grew up in Southern California, was a former member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Explorers and worked at an Orange, Calif., ambulance service before joining the elite unit of firefighters. Woyjeck was the son of Los Angeles County Fire Department Cptn. Joe Woyjeck.

Woyjeck's Facebook Page on Monday showed that he lived in Prescott and worked as a wildland firefighter and studied at Santa Ana College. Pictures posted on his page show Woyjeck fishing and skiing. In many of the poses, he is holding fresh-caught fish or lobsters. In another, he is pictured in a kayak.

Dustin DeFord, 24, also came from a family of firefighters. His father and four brothers also are firefighters and "(firefighting) is kind of a tradition in our family," brother Jonathan DeFord said.

DeFord had been a firefighter since he was 18 and has had been in Arizona for one year, the brother said.

"The most notable thing about Dustin is that he is a believer in Jesus Christ," Jonathan DeFord said. "His faith was the most important thing to him."

Pastor Bob Hoyt of Prescott's Heights Church said that Clayton Whitted, 28, joined the Prescott Hot Shot crew after graduating from Prescott High School.

He spent a few years with that firefighting crew and then left to work on a youth ministry at the Heights Church and with local middle school students, Hoyt said. In 2008, Whitted's mother died of cancer and he decided to join the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Hoyt said.

The pastor added that Whitted was passionate about two things - ministry and firefighting.

"He was passionate about what he did, whether it was firefighting or ministering," Hoyt said. "He was a very godly man. He was a servant. When he was moved to do something he threw himself into it."

The family of John Percin Jr., 24, issued a written statement.

"John was a brave and courageous man who never hesitated to put others before himself," the family said. "He was loved by many, and he will always be remembered. He is an inspiration to us all. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of his fallen brothers and their families."

John Nelson, a friend of McKee and fellow fallen firefighter Robert Caldwell, 23, said the two young men were cousins.

Until about six months ago, Caldwell and McKee lived together in the Prescott home where Caldwell grew up, Nelson said.

"Robert and Grant were both great guys," Nelson said. "They were passionate about what they did. Grant had a really good heart."

Likewise, Garret Zuppiger, 27, "was always, always willing to lend a helping hand," according to Frank Morrison, a former neighbor of his at The Pillars, a modest, two-story apartment building on a tree-lined street in Prescott.

"He would give you the shirt off his back," Morrison recalled.

The caption under his Prescott High School yearbook photo may give some insight into the personality of Travis Turbyfill, 27.

It reads: "I have decided to live forever or die in the attempt."

The bodies of the 19 firefighters arrived in Phoenix Monday to a moving ceremonial reception.

Two members of the Phoenix Police Honor Guard flanked the entrance to the parking garage as the vans drove through. One held a second American flag; the other, an Arizona state flag.

Several blocks of South 8th Avenue were blocked off, as Phoenix fire and police vehicles, joined by trucks from the Prescott Fire Department, lined the streets. Dozens of police officers and firefighters gathered to watch as the bodies were driven through.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner has the size and resources needed to help with the autopsies of the 19 firefighters killed in the fire, said Sgt. Trent Crump, spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department, which helped organize what Crump called the honors reception.

"To us, it's the least we can do," Crump said. "It's a fitting arrival for these guys for what they did."

Cory Moser, division chief for the Prescott Fire Department, accompanied the bodies.

He described the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as polite and humble; they hosted a barbecue each year and referred to their guests as "sir" and "madam."

He recalled with a laugh that the hotshots would invite members of the Prescott Fire Department to participate in the difficult physical training they underwent at the start of each season.

The hotshots grew up together, Moser said. They attended school together, played sports together and helped raise each other's kids.

"The only greater honor we have than pulling them off that mountain and protecting them as we brought them here was knowing them in the first place," Moser said.

AZCENTRAL

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