PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. — The 19 firefighters were mourned slowly, as if those who knew them wanted to relive each memory before it, too, was gone for good.
Over the parched mountains from where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died little more than a week ago while battling what became the deadliest wildfire since the 1930s, thousands of firefighters and family members packed an arena today for a two-hour memorial to honor their bravery.
Hundreds of others watched outside on giant screens propped up in the Arizona dust as firefighters and politicians told stories of the Hotshots, recalling the firefighting brotherhood that bound them.
“I don’t have the privilege of knowing any of these heroes personally, but I know them,” Vice President Joe Biden said at the memorial. “I know them because they saved the lives of my two sons when a tractor-trailer broadsided my daughters, my wife and my two sons.”
“My wife and daughter died. They saved my guys,” Biden continued. “There’s an old saying: All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters. Thank God for you all.”
Brawny and lionhearted, the men took deep pride in fighting the wildfires that raged across the West each summer. They were an elite group who could trudge miles up a mountainside to cut fire lines, weighted down with heavy gear, while smoke and heat swirled around them.
That was what they were doing the afternoon of June 30, before the wind — a wilderness firefighter’s mortal enemy — turned on them. A fire that looked beatable suddenly roared back to life, cutting off escape routes, rendering protective gear powerless and killing 19 of the 20 crew members.
“Each of them was my adopted son. I loved them, their hearts. I saw joy in the each of them when they were doing their jobs,” said Darrell Willis, the chief of the Prescott Fire Department’s wilderness fire division, who donned the same pants and boots for the service that he wore the night the men were killed. “I would have followed them blindfolded into every place they were at.”
The service was the latest ceremony in a week of grieving for the firefighters, the most killed in a single incident since 9/11. On Sunday, thousands of people lined the streets as a procession of white hearses drove some 100 miles, climbing from the desert outside Phoenix to the pine forests of Prescott, where many of the men will be buried this week.
For the last few days, firefighters from around country have poured into Prescott to pay their respects, visiting the makeshift memorial that sprang up near the station where the Hotshots were based. There were firefighters here from Hemet, a California town near Santa Barbara where Sean Misner had dreamed of joining a Hotshots crew. And from Los Angeles County, where Kevin Woyjeck’s father was a captain and used to take him out on calls as a little boy.
From Long Beach and Indianapolis, Bullhead City and Ogden City they came. The Western wildfire crews with their navy green cargo pants and sun-chapped skin. The big city battalions, wearing walrus mustaches and smart, blue department tees. Some like Sean Johnson, a New York City firefighter, had rushed to Arizona with several others from New York to help organize the memorial service — a huge undertaking that involved coordinating hundreds of family members and dozens of agencies.
Johnson recalled how a team of federal firefighters, many of them from Arizona, had rushed to New York City to help after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the years after, teams from the Southwest ended up training the city’s Fire Department on the “incident command system,” a military-style command structure used by wilderness firefighters since the 1970s and eventually adopted by New York City emergency services.
“It’s kind of been this pact between us,” said Johnson, who lost friends on Sept. 11. “They’re having a tragedy that has been unprecedented for them, as it was for us during 9/11. All these years later, we’re coming here to help them out.”
His boss, Chief Edward S. Kilduff, also caught a plane to Arizona on Monday afternoon.
“To hear that something like this could happen to such a well trained, highly regarded group is just shocking,” Kilduff said. “We know these folks out here. And we saw how it affected our families after 9/11.”
The night before the memorial, hundreds of firefighters, unburdened for at least a few hours, spilled out of the bars on Prescott’s fabled “whiskey row.” Amid the grins, embraces and stories, one local firefighter suddenly grew quiet as he spoke with a fellow firefighter from Miami-Dade County. “Thanks for making the trip,” he said.