Valdosta Daily Times

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July 7, 2013

A brewing storm: How fire turned tragic for 19 men

(Continued)

YARNELL, Ariz. — For a short time, no one knew who the lone survivor was. Each man’s family prayed that their son-husband-brother had been the lucky one.

Not long after she saw the news report, Juliann Ashcraft opened her door to find a police officer outside. Andrew had not made it.

With family and friends to look after the children, she headed to Prescott’s Mile High Middle School to grieve with the other families. There, officials gave some details of what had happened. They talked about a freak storm, and said the men appeared to have done everything by the book.

Juliann found some comfort in that, and also in learning that her husband and his friends were never left alone.

Willis and three other men sat vigil with the firefighters all night, until their bodies were removed the next morning and transported to a medical examiner’s office. Nineteen American flags were brought to the scene, one to be draped over each man’s body.

A week later, the fire these men died fighting burns on, although it is almost fully contained. It claimed property as well as lives, destroying more than 100 homes.

Autopsies of the 19 firefighters have been conducted, and an investigation into what happened here begun. But answers aren’t expected still for months.

For now, these towns and these families can only grieve, and begin planning for funerals.

Across from the Granite Mountain crew’s headquarters in downtown Prescott, a chain-link fence has become a makeshift shrine. Teddy bears, homemade banners, flower arrangements and fire department T-shirts from all over the country bake in the brutal summer sun.

On the Fourth of July, firefighter Nik Christian stopped by to pay his respects. The burly engine man based out of Flagstaff, Ariz., clambered up a small rise of river rock to clip one of his department’s T-shirts to the fence. The Hotshots, he said, were his heroes.

“It’s a whole different animal with them,” said Christian, whose crew had been dispatched last Sunday to help fight the fire. “Very few people do exactly what they do.”

Around the corner, Jennifer Parks of Phoenix was trying to explain to her 6-year-old son, Jake, that this was not where the fallen firefighters were buried.

“No, honey,” she said gently. “This is where ... people come to pay their respects.”

Jake’s 4-year-old brother, Zak, stopped at a circle of tiny toy firetrucks and pointed to one that looked like one of his own back home.

“I have one I want to bring,” he told his mom.

One of the family’s good friends is a fire chief back in Phoenix. The boys have visited stations and gotten to climb on the engines.

“I want to be a fireman,” Zak said. Then in the next breath he added, “I want to be Batman.”

A few feet away, someone had placed a sign that read, “Real Heroes Don’t Wear Capes.” Zak’s mother smiled.

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