PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — They wiped away tears, hugged loved ones and stood in salute to 19 Arizona firefighters who held a special place in their hearts.
The crowd of people gathered outside a historic courthouse to pay tribute to the fallen firefighters on the one-year anniversary of their deaths, and reminders of the death toll were inescapable around town.
Hikers left 19 flags at one of the Hotshots’ favorite training spots, banners on store fronts proclaimed 19 heroes, and children had the number painted on their faces. Hundreds of people wearing shirts inscribed with the number gathered as the 19 names were read, followed by 19 bell chimes echoing through the Yavapai County courthouse and 19 seconds of silence — all while pictures of the 19 men stood before them.
“You don’t have to know these guys personally,” said Prescott resident Corie White. “They are part of our community.”
The tragedy marked the largest loss of life for U.S. firefighters since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the worst for a wildland fire crew in eight decades. The men, who made up the Granite Mountain Hotshots based in Prescott, died trying to protect the nearby town of Yarnell from an out-of-control brush fire that trapped them during erratic weather.
For almost everyone in town, their work in Prescott was unforgettable. They cleared brush and snow from around people’s homes, served as friends and neighbors, and battled some of the country’s worst wildfires.
“One year ago today, our small community was forever changed. The unimaginable suddenly had to be imagined,” said Prescott Fire Department Battalion Chief Don Devendorf. “Yes, they died. They died honorably. They died as part of an honorable profession.”
He thanked residents for supporting the Prescott Fire Department a year ago when members were wracked with grief.
“Under normal circumstances, you call us when you need help,” he said. But “you were the emergency responders for us. You propped us up. You gave us strength.”
The downtown ceremony was one of several remembrances throughout Prescott, about 100 miles north of Phoenix.
As the bells rang out downtown, bronze markers etched with family photos were uncovered one by one at a Prescott cemetery where about 600 family members and friends of the Hotshots gathered for a private service. Surrounding plots for each of the men is a wall where mourners can sit and room for family to be buried alongside the firefighters.
“It’s remarkable that they indeed did keep all 19 of them together,” Gayemarie Ekker, whose son Joe Thurston was killed, said days ahead of the ceremony. “That as families, we do have that place to go and reflect.”
Dozens of people gathered early Monday to hike a butte that was a favorite training spot of the firefighters. Others attended an exhibit at a Prescott hotel that showcases the men and their time on the fire lines.
Joe Woyjeck, a fire captain in Los Angeles County who lost his son Kevin, didn’t travel to Prescott for the ceremonies, but one of Kevin’s siblings did. He said the rest of his family wanted to keep things low-key at home in California, maybe with a fire pit at lifeguard station 19.
Even he hasn’t been able to escape the number 19 during the past year. While in Prescott to take Kevin’s remains back home, he sat down at a restaurant where a waitress joked that the Hotshots were “cereal killers” because of how much cereal they ate. When he left, he said the waitress gave him a box of Wheaties to take home. On the top was the number “19.”
While flipping through photographs of a fishing trip he went on with his son, he only recently noticed the name of the boat. Nineteen.
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