Not since Sept. 11, 2001, have so many firefighters died in the United States on a single day.
And for us Easterners, it is difficult to imagine what went wrong in Yarnell, Ariz., to snuff out the lives of 19 members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots who were among 600 firefighters trying to contain a blaze that burned 13 square miles and destroyed more than 100 homes.
We understand tornadoes. We understand fires that engulf buildings. We even understand acts of terrorism. But to truly understand a wildfire, you’ve got to be there.
And that’s what makes the lives and deaths of these men — the oldest 43 and most of them in their 20s, with the youngest 21 — so extraordinary. They had seen wildfires up close, felt the hot breath of a fire that was eager to consume anything in its path, and yet they put themselves in harm’s way again and again.
Brief biographies of the fallen Hotshots in almost every case mentioned their long-time fascination with and devotion to firefighting. Just as in urban fire departments, in some cases these were jobs pursued through generations of a family.
But this is a special kind of firefighting, one that involves days at a time on the front line wielding shovels, axes, chain saws. All this is done dressed in long-sleeved shirts, hard hats and heavy gear, battling not only smoke and flames but triple-digit temperatures.
It’s by and large a young man’s profession, but one that not only requires youth, but education, devotion and judgment. And a fitness regimen that requires hours at workout facilities, lifting weights, climbing rock walls and building endurance.
There will be a memorial service in Prescott today for the 19 men whose bodies were brought in a caravan of hearses from Phoenix. Thousands lined the route of the procession and thousands more will pay tribute today, The bodies will then be transported for individual services by family and friends.
And through it all, each body has had and will continue to have an honor guard, a fellow firefighter who demonstrates the brotherhood that binds these squads.
After the bodies have been buried and the final tones of a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” have faded, investigators will reassemble everything that is known about the wind and fire that trapped these men so that, perhaps, another squad can be saved on another day.
And if so, these men who chose to pursue a life of danger so that others may live will have one more addition to their legacy.
In the meantime, it is only fitting that we do our small part to pay tribute to these men as individuals. These are the Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost their lives in Arizona.
Andrew Ashcraft, 29
Robert Caldwell, 23
Travis Carter, 31
Dustin Deford, 24
Christopher MacKenzie, 30
Eric Marsh, 43
Grant McKee, 21
Sean Misner, 26
Scott Norris, 28
Wade Parker, 22
John Percin, 24
Anthony Rose, 23
Jesse Steed, 36
Joe Thurston, 32
Travis Turbyfill, 27
William Warneke, 25
Clayton Whitted , 28
Kevin Woyjeck, 21
Garret Zuppiger, 27