PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, were killed Sunday when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. Here are the stories of those who died:
Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots and remembered Andrew Ashcraft, 29, as a fitness-oriented student.
“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 the hard work.”
Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left behind a wife, Juliann, and four children, The Deseret News of Salt Lake City reported.
Friends characterized Robert Caldwell, 23, as the smart man in the bunch.
“He was one of the smart guys in the crew who could get the weather, figure out the mathematics. It was just natural for him,” said Chase Madrid, who worked as a Hotshot for two years.
It was Caldwell’s intelligence and know-how that got him appointed as a squad boss. His cousin, Grant McKee, al-so was one of the Hotshots killed Sunday.
He had just gotten married in November and had a 5-year-old stepson.
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.
Dustin DeFord, 24, had been a firefighter since he turned 18 and started as a volunteer in tiny Ekalaka, Mont. His father, the Rev. Steve DeFord, said the outpouring of support there has been unbelievable. “We’ve got enough food in the house to last a year,” he said.
DeFord graduated from Cornerstone Bible Institute in Hot Springs, S.D., three years ago, his father said, and always believed God was his guiding force.
DeFord is survived by nine brothers and sisters.
An avid snowboarder, Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California’s San Jacinto Valley, where he was a 2001 graduate of Hemet High School and a former member of the town’s fire department. He joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department, longtime friend Dav Fulford-Brown told The Riverside Press-Enterprise.
MacKenzie, like at least one other member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, had followed his father into firefighting. Michael MacKenzie, a former Moreno Valley Fire Department captain, confirmed he had been informed of his son’s death.
“I can’t talk about it,” he said.
Eric Marsh, 43, was an avid mountain biker who grew up in Ashe County, N.C., and became hooked on firefighting while studying at Appalachian State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of his cousin.
Marsh lived with Racquer and her then-husband during the winters from 1992 through 1996 in North Carolina but returned to Arizona during fire season.
After college, he kept working as a firefighter, eventually settling in northern Arizona. Marsh was superintendent of the Hotshot crew and the oldest of the 19 who died.
Marsh was married but had no children, said a cousin, Scott Marsh of Pisgah Forest, N.C.
Grant McKee, 21, loved to give things away.
“Even as a child, I’d ask him where things were, and he’d say, ‘Oh, such and such liked it.’ And sometimes it really cost a lot! But he’d say, ‘Oh, he liked it so much,’” said his grandmother, Mary Hoffmann.
“So on his birthday, I started to say, ‘I hope you’re going to keep this!’” she said.
McKee’s mother said Grant was training to be an emergency medical technician and only intended to work with the Hotshots for the summer.
Sean Misner, 26, leaves behind a wife who is seven months pregnant, said Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, where Misner graduated in 2005.
Misner played varsity football and also participated in the school’s sports medicine program. He was slim for a high school football player, but that didn’t stop him from tackling his opponents, recalled retired football coach Ken Gruendyke. “He played with tremendous heart and desire,” Gruendyke said.
Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott through his part-time job at Bucky O’Neill Guns.
“Here in Arizona the gun shops are a lot like barbershops. Sometimes you don’t go in there to buy anything at all, you just go to talk,” resident William O’Hara said. “I never heard a dirty word out of the guy. He was the kind of guy who if he dated your daughter, you’d be OK with it. He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman.”
At 22, Wade Parker had just joined the Hotshots team. His father works for the nearby Chino Valley Fire Department, said retired Prescott Fire Department Capt. Jeff Knotek, who had known Wade since he was “just a little guy.”
The younger Parker had been very excited about being part of the Hotshot crew, Knotek said.
“He was another guy who wanted to be a second-generation firefighter,” Knotek said. “Big, athletic kid who loved it, aggressive, assertive and in great shape.”
JOHN PERCIN JR.
He loved baseball and had an unforgettable laugh. In his aunt’s eyes, John Percin Jr. was, simply, an “amazing young man.”
“He was probably the strongest and bravest young man I have ever met in my life,” Donna Percin Pederson said from her home in Portland, Ore.
Percin, 24, was a multi-sport high school athlete who graduated in 2007 from West Linn High School, southeast of Portland.
Anthony Rose, 23, was one of the youngest victims. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked as a firefighter in nearby Crown King before moving on to become a Hotshot.
Retired Crown King firefighter Greg Flores said Rose “just blossomed in the fire department.”
“He did so well and helped so much in Crown King,” he said. “We were all so very proud of him.”
Flores said the town was planning a fundraiser for Rose’s family. “He loved what he was doing, and that brings me some peace of heart,” Flores said.
Jesse Steed’s former colleagues remember him as a joker.
“He was a character. If you look at all the old photos of him, he was doing things to make people laugh,” said Cooper Carr, who worked with Steed in the Hotshots from 2001 to 2003.
“He was just great for morale. He’d just talk in a funny voice and have us all in stitches,” Carr said.
Carr remembers that Steed once spent the better part of an hour positioning a water bottle just right for a photo so that it would look like Yosemite Falls was cascading into it.
Back home in Cedar City, Utah, Joe Thurston, 32, used to go to an area reservoir with friends and promptly show how fearless he could be.
“He was definitely one of the daredevil types,” longtime friend Scott Goodrich told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We went to Quail (Creek) Reservoir, and we’d be finding 40- to 50-foot cliffs that people would be scared to jump off. He would just show up and be front-flipping off of them.”
He brought this bold streak to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
“He had all the qualities that a firefighter would need to possess,” E.J. Overson, another friend, told the Salt Lake City newspaper.
Known as “Turby” among crew members, Travis Turbyfill got a full-time position with the Hotshots when another member’s girlfriend asked him to quit.
Turbyfill, 27, often worked out with other Hotshots at Captain Crossfit, a warehouse filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings near the firehouse.
Tony Burris, a trainer, said he enjoyed watching Turby with his daughters. “Because he’s this big, huge Marine, Hotshot guy, and he has two little girls — reddish-blond curly hair — and they just loved their dad,” he said.
Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif.
Warneke grew up in Hemet, Calif., along with his fellow Granite Mountain Hotshot, Chris MacKenzie. A four-year Marine Corps veteran, he had joined the hotshot crew in April.
He earned a degree in fire science from Pima Community College last year, the school said.
Full of heart and determination, Clayton Whitted, 28, might not have been the biggest guy around, but he was among the hardest-working. His former Prescott High School coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was a “wonderful kid” who always had a big smile on his face.
“He was a smart young man with a great personality,” said Beneitone. “When he walked into a room, he could really light it up.”
For Kevin Woyjeck, 21, the fire station was a second home. His father, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency, said Kevin often accompanied his dad to the station and on ride-alongs.
“He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand in hand,” Mora said Monday in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives.
Mora remembered the younger Woyjeck as a “joy to be around.”
Garret Zuppiger, 27, loved to be funny, said Tony Burris, a trainer at a gym where many of the Hotshots worked out.
“We both had a red beard and so we would always admire each other’s beards,” he said.
Zuppiger earned a liberal arts degree from Pima Community College in 2006 and a business economics degree from the University of Arizona in 2008.
But Zuppiger at last admitted that he wanted more of an outdoor lifestyle, Michel said, noting, “We spent a lot of time talking about how the economics major could apply to that.”