A year after 19 firefighters died, city remembers

AP News
Posted: Jun 30, 2014 4:44 PM
A year after 19 firefighters died, city remembers

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — This Arizona city is marking the first anniversary of the deaths of 19 wildland firefighters with a series of tributes and remembrances that will include a ceremony featuring a bell-ringing and reading of the names of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Businesses around Prescott displayed banners in honor of the firefighters, and visitors and residents wore T-shirts bearing their unit's logo and "19" to mark the number of deaths. The firefighters died June 30, 2013 when they were overrun by flames while fighting an erratic brush fire near Prescott.

Dozens of people also gathered early Monday to hike a butte that was a favorite training spot of the firefighters. Visitors and residents attended an exhibit at a Prescott hotel that showcases the men and their time on the fire lines.

Terri Brahm was walking through the exhibit with her uncle, Ron Markus, both wearing T-shirts they bought Sunday to wear in remembrance of the Hotshots.

"Everybody still talks about it, every day," she said. "Something always reminds us."

Since the deaths, Brahm said her son has become inspired to become a Hotshot himself.

Meanwhile, the men's families plan to gather Monday for a private service at the Prescott cemetery where many of Hotshots are buried.

Ten of the firefighters were laid to rest there, but each of the 19 has a plot with a bronze grave marker that will be etched with images taken from family photos. Surrounding the plots is a wall where mourners can sit and room for family members to be buried alongside the firefighters.

"It's remarkable that they indeed did keep all 19 of them together," said Gayemarie Ekker, whose son Joe Thurston was killed. "That as families, we do have that place to go and reflect."

Former Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo and Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis are scheduled to speak to the families at the cemetery.

Joe Woyjeck said his son and his son's girlfriend planned to travel to Prescott to thank people in person for supporting the Hotshots. But the rest of his family will keep things low-key at home in California in remembering his son, Kevin, he said.

Woyjeck and his wife were in Prescott recently and sat on a rock at the site where the Hotshots died in a brush-choked canyon while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire. He said his family has gotten through the tragedy by focusing on something Kevin taught them when he was a boy: that people choose to be unhappy.

"I choose to be happy with this, and I think we're going to celebrate life that day with what we do," he said of the anniversary.

Danny Parker, who lost his son, Wade, said that aside from going to the cemetery, the family will keep the day's events to a "dull roar."

The city of Prescott, which had the country's only municipal Hotshot crew, is shutting down early Monday for the ceremony.

Katie Cornelius has gathered stories of the brotherhood formed by Hotshots who spend months together battling the country's most severe wildfires, of the raucousness at camp that included contests on who could eat the most tubs of gravy. Those stories, along with photos of the men, will be displayed on sections of chain-link fence inside the Hotel St. Michael.

"When you start to understand what that life was, you can say, 'What a crazy, awesome life," she said.

A play produced by local musician, author and actor Ered Matthew was inspired by the stories behind items left on a memorial fence. Matthew said he was struck by a T-shirt from Albuquerque, New Mexico, that read, "Requirements. No egos. No badges. No resume builders. Willing hearts."

The fence allowed a framework for people to express their emotions by leaving books they read to their children, fire hats, roses and stuffed animals, he said.

"Once you know the story of why they left it, people will realize other people share their grief in a similar way," he said.