July 7, 2013

Crowds salute caravan of 19 'heroes'

Hearses carry the bodies of the Arizona men killed in a wildfire on a somber 125-mile journey home.

The Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Nineteen firefighters killed in a wildfire a week ago went home for the last time Sunday, their bodies traveling in individual white hearses in a somber caravan for 125 miles through Arizona cities and towns.

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Hearses carrying the bodies of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots move Sunday past Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service personnel on the way from Phoenix to Prescott, Ariz. A memorial service is set for Tuesday in Prescott, then funerals will be held for the men.

The Associated Press

The nearly five-hour-long procession began near the state Capitol in Phoenix, went through the town where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed and ended in the mountain community of Prescott, where they lived and will be laid to rest this week.

Thousands of people from across the state and beyond stood patiently in triple-digit temperatures in Phoenix, lined highways and overpasses along the route, and flooded the roads of downtown Prescott to pay their respect to the 19, whose deaths are the greatest loss of life for firefighters since the September 2001 terror attacks.

They included fellow firefighters, the men's family members, complete strangers and residents of Yarnell, the small town they died trying to save.

Those along the procession cried, or saluted, or held their hands over their hearts.

"It's overwhelming to watch this slow procession of 19 hearses," said a tearful Bill Morse, a Flagstaff fire captain who has been stationed in Prescott for a week helping Prescott fire deal with the tragedy. "The ceremonious air of it all. It's heartbreaking."

In downtown Prescott, a bustling and sometimes-rowdy area filled with bars and other businesses known as Whiskey Row grew eerily quiet as the hearses drove by, essentially stopping all activity for several minutes.

"You've got this tragic event that happened, you've got 19 hearses driving by," said 26-year-old Jay Averitt of Prescott. "It puts reality in check. It was an honor to be able to watch it."

Many along the route carried American flags and signs that read, "Courageous, selfless, fearless, beloved," "Yarnell remembers" and simply, "Heroes."

Motorcycle escorts, honor guard members and firefighting trucks accompanied the 19 hearses along the route.

In both Phoenix and Prescott, the procession drove under giant American flags hoisted above the street with the raised ladders of two firefighter trucks. Bagpipes played as crowds were hushed silent by the enormity of the loss.

A red and white DC-3 airplane used for wildland firefighting released long purple and pink ribbons overhead with each firefighter's name on them; the ribbons drifted slowly down to the earth just before the hearses came to a stop outside the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's Office.

Inside each hearse were the American flags that were draped over the men's bodies at the site of their deaths in Yarnell. The flags have been with them since and will be until they're buried. After that, the flags will be given to their families.

Family members of the firefighters watched the procession in private, away from the public and members of the media, as it passed by a massive makeshift memorial outside the fire station where the men were based in Prescott. The memorial includes hundreds of personal messages, pictures of the men, American flags, and variations on the number 19 – 19 water bottles, 19 shovels, 19 toy fire trucks surrounding a stuffed bear.

"When you think about their wives, their families and their kids, it just brings tears to your eyes," said Lon Reiman of Scottsdale.

Since their fellow firefighters arrived at the scene where they were killed, the fallen firefighters have not been alone, a tradition among those in the profession in the U.S.

"Since they were discovered, they have never been out of the presence of a brother firefighter," said Paul Bourgeois, a Phoenix-area fire chief who is acting as a spokesman in Prescott for the firefighters' families.

The firefighters were killed a week ago in the Yarnell Hill fire, sparked by lightning on June 28.

The crew of Hotshots was working to build a fire line between the blaze and Yarnell when erratic winds suddenly shifted the fire's direction, causing it to hook around the firefighters and cut off access to a ranch that was to be their safety zone.

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