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Friends, family share stories of fallen Hotshots

Sunday - 9/29/2013, 6:30pm  ET

The Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, were killed June 30 when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s. Here are the stories of those who died:



Andrew Ashcraft, 29, dreamed of being a firefighter since he was a boy, attended fire camps as a teenager and spent hours after classes in high school studying fire science. He joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2011 and was awarded rookie of the year honors that year. His stated objective in his resume for the city of Prescott was "to excel in the firefighting profession and build a career as a wildland fire specialist."

Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots and remembered Ashcraft as a fitness-oriented student.

"He had some athletic ability in him, and he was a go-getter, too. You could pretty much see, from young freshman all the way, he was going to be physically active."

Beneitone said athletic prowess was a must for the Hotshots. "That's what it takes. You gotta be very physically fit, and you gotta like it, gotta like the hard work."

Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, graduated from Prescott High School in 2003 where he met his wife. He and Juliann Ashcraft had four children -- Ryder, Shiloh, Tate Andrew and Choice -- whom he insisted on tucking into bed each night and leading in prayers.



Friends characterized Robert Caldwell, 23, as the smart man in the bunch.

It was Caldwell's intelligence and know-how that got him appointed as a squad boss with the Hotshots.

"He was one of the smart guys in the crew who could get the weather, figure out the mathematics," said Chase Madrid, who worked as a Hotshot for two years but sat this year out. "It was just natural for him."

Caldwell's cousin, Grant McKee, also was one of the Hotshots killed June 30, a devastating blow to their grandmother, Mary Hoffman.

Caldwell and his wife Claire had just gotten married in November, and he had a 5-year-old stepson. McKee was engaged to Leah Fine, a woman he met in Prescott and described as "an angel."

"Both of these boys were only interested in having a family life," said Caldwell's aunt, Laurie McKee.

Caldwell's family said he died with honor along with his brothers, his boots tight on his feet. He'd often say "I'd rather die in my boots than live in a suit."

"Robert was the kind of man every man strives to be," his wife said. "He was the husband every woman dreams of and a father a child could look up to."



At Captain Crossfit, a gym near the firehouse where the Hotshots were stationed, Travis Carter was known as the strongest one on the crew -- but also the most humble.

"No one could beat him," trainer Janine Pereira said. "But the thing about him was he would never brag about it. He would just kill everyone and then go and start helping someone else finish."

Carter, 31, was famous for once holding a plank for 45 minutes, and he was notorious for making up brutal workouts.

The crew recently did a 5-mile run during wilderness training. He then made them go to Captain Crossfit in the afternoon for another hard workout.

"The other guys who came in here always said that even though he was in charge, he was always the first one at the fire, the first one in action," Pereira said.

Carter also gained notoriety as a tailback on his high school football team in Dewey, where he scored 16 touchdowns his senior year and was named an all-state, all-conference player.

One of his favorite places was a fishing pond at his family's ranch, where he worked alongside his father and his grandfather branding and shipping cattle and driving tractors.

He joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2009.



Dustin DeFord, 24, was a Baptist preacher's son, but it was firefighting that captured his imagination.

At 18, he volunteered for the Carter County Rural Fire Department like his father did in his hometown of Ekalaka, Mont.

He graduated from Cornerstone Bible Institute in Hot Springs, S.D., three years ago, said his father, the Rev. Steve DeFord. He always believed God was his guiding force and could be seen reading his Bible daily.

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