Year after firefighter deaths, town moves forward
Jun 28, 2014 at 9:00 AM
Reminders of the Granite Mountain Hotshots are spread throughout Station 7.
Around the crew's former firehouse, their pictures surround a quilt hanging on the wall, their names are inscribed on a wooden table and the vehicles they drove to their final wildfire sit parked in the garage, with slips of paper marking their seat assignments.
Over the past year, the station in Prescott has become a source of solace and heartache.
People have parked their cars outside, sharing stories of loss and pride in the 19 Hotshots who died on June 30, 2013, in the deadliest day for U.S. fire crews since 9/11. Families have sunk into the seats of the crew's vehicles, imagining the final ride.
The tragedy has seen the community go from an outpouring of support in the days after the deaths to animosity over survivors' benefits to blaming fire officials for mismanaging the blaze. Through it all, the community has balanced how to mourn and honor the men with how to move forward.
"We'll never move on," said Darrell Willis, chief of the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Division. "They will always be in our mind."
Nowhere is that more apparent in the northern Arizona town than at Station 7.
A chore list posted on the inside door of one of the crew vehicles, or buggies, lists Clay Whitted's job as "Bossin Like A Boss." One of the steering wheels has a mustache-shaped sticker that reads "STASHTASTIC" — a reference to Andrew Ashcraft, who'd sit in the driver's seat.
A magazine clipping above a flat-screen TV where they watched movies like "Smoke Jumpers" and "Dumb and Dumber" while on the road asks: "What's the worst that could happen?"
The day they died, afternoon thunderstorms and erratic winds caused a fire they were fighting near Yarnell to shift directions, turning on them and trapping them in a brush-choked canyon. They deployed their fire shelters in a last-ditch effort to save themselves.
When the buggies returned without the men, thousands of people lined the streets of Yarnell, Prescott and surrounding communities to salute them.
Since then, the healing process hasn't been easy.
One widow led a successful campaign to secure full survivors' benefits. A father is trying to develop a better fire shelter. A family set up a fund to help aspiring firefighters learn the basics. Baseball scholarships are named for one of the Hotshots.
"You have to make friends with the uncomfortable feeling of missing them every day, because if you don't, it's going to destroy you," said Danny Parker, whose son Wade was killed in the fire. "The No. 1 thing that we believe is we've got to have the faith that God has a bigger plan than us."
For Gayemarie Ekker, whose son Joe Thurston was killed, her saving grace is the support from firefighters and the community, and conversations with her daughter-in-law and two young grandsons. "We're all doing the best we can," she said.
The losses were felt deeply in the firefighting community, too.
Firefighters helped remove the thousands of items from a memorial fence outside Station 7, but some of them avoided the cataloguing "afraid it would rip them to shreds emotionally, and sometimes that happened," said Katie Cornelius, who put together an exhibit for the anniversary.
The firefighters now find levity in a log illuminated with lights for each of the Hotshots, understanding in an oil painting that shows 19 hearses heading up the mountain and deep appreciation for a child's simple words: "I sorry for your loss."
In Yarnell, where flames destroyed 127 homes, residents struggled with looters during evacuations, displacement, resentment that the community was being overshadowed by the firefighters' deaths and anger over what some viewed as a slow firefighting response.
As the first houses rose from the ashes, people saw recovery as a real possibility.
"We feel the best way to honor those 19 is to make this a vibrant, alive community, and that's what we're doing," said resident Chuck Tidey.
A recovery group has taken in nearly $1.6 million in donations, a figure Tidey said wouldn't have been as large without the link to the Hotshots.
Station 7 is now home to a new crew of firefighters who do the work the Granite Mountain Hotshots were built upon — clearing brush from around homes in Prescott and teaching people what it means to be fire wise.
"This was their second home, you respect it," said 27-year-old Ronnie Gamble.
These crew members, however, aren't Hotshots and don't aspire to be.
They pay their tributes in small ways. As part of tradition, they do push-ups if they lay a foot on a series of tiles with the initials "GMIHC" at the firehouse entrance, only now they do 19. Their black T-shirts, which resemble the Hotshots', will be replaced with blue ones featuring an orange "19" on the sleeve.
Colleen Turbyfill, whose son Travis was among the dead, visited the firehouse recently for the first time since the days after the tragedy. She climbed into the passenger seat of one of the buggies, rubbing her hands across a sticker with his name taped to the dashboard and sobbed.
"Did he talk on this?" she asked, pointing to the radio.
Pressing down the call button, she said: "I love you, Travis."