Prescott remembers the 4th, fallen firefighters

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- They remembered the Fourth, but also the 19.

Prescott's Fourth of July celebration had everything you'd expect for a patriotic party. But at every corner of Pioneer Park, there they were.

"Those guys did their job, they were chosen to do that job," said Kim Aragon of Dewey. "They did what they loved to do and it's a terrible tragedy."

The 19 hotshots killed on Yarnell Hill were not there in person, but in spirit.

"The firefighters, both Forest Service and local are the best in the nation, and we can't say enough about what they've done to protect us," said Bill Terbot of Prescott.

For many, like Christina Ratajski, the grief is never far, only just below the surface. But she says being at the Independence Day celebration is what the guys would have wanted.

"You know, there was a flash of 'Well, nobody really wants to celebrate now, but then...the bottom line is unfortunately we have to move on, we have to continue to live and we just didn't want to do that without some kind of a memorial on our little area," she said.

She and her family decorated their tents with a poster honoring the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and 19 flags surrounded their spot on the grass.

Even amid the pain, there was some fun for this community Thursday night, including a motocross show and music. Moments that made this crowd grateful for where they live, and what 19 brave Americans gave.

"[They're] putting their lives at risk. No different than our soldiers, you know? It's a tough job. And we appreciate them," said Ratajski.

At Bistro St. Michael on Whiskey Row in this old West town, 19 candles burned beneath red, white and blue bunting, one for each firefighter killed last weekend battling a wildfire not far from the place they called home.

In a quiet neighborhood near the high school, which at least five of them attended, 19 miniature U.S. flags were planted in front yards, each pole tied with the purple ribbon that commemorates fallen firefighters.

At the makeshift memorial on the fence that wrapped around the elite Hotshots firefighting team's headquarters, people left 19 potted plants, 19 pinwheels, 19 handwritten cards, 19 religious candles.

On a day meant to ponder the nation's birth, and those who built and defended it over 237 years, Prescott's residents had 19 of their neighbors, their friends, their relatives to remember.

Children claimed over fire trucks at the town of 40,000's signature all-day, over-the-top July Fourth carnival.

Many of the more than 10,000 attendees wore t-shirts commemorating the dead, and spoke of them while drinking beer and waiting in line for rides.

Resident Todd Lynd said the festival provided a way for the town to mourn its dead without compromising its history.

"It's a good tradition and now it's been intensified by the tragedy. It's open arms around here right now," he said as he watched bands play in front of a banner commemorating the fallen firefighters.

Fire Department division chief Don Devendorf read the names of the fallen men to loud applause as 19 single fireworks burst overhead.

"Less than 100 hours ago, the city of Prescott, the state of Arizona and the nation lost 19 of the best, the bravest firefighters ever dispatched into the forest," he said.

The commemorative starbursts were followed by a raucous 20-minute display choreographed to patriotic pop songs, which drew cheering, grins and shouts of "America!"

Away from the celebrations, some of the fallen firefighters' families were quietly trying to come to terms with their own personal loss. Occasionally, relatives would emerge to speak about the fallen.

"There's no celebration today," said Laurie McKee, whose 21-year-old nephew, Grant McKee, died in the fire. "We're doing OK, but it's still up and down."

McKee's father and aunt picked up items recovered from his truck on Wednesday night, and were comforted when the fire chief told them that Grant McKee had been part of "the Navy Seals of firefighting," his aunt said. His family was planning to spend the day at home, visiting with relatives flying in for his funeral.

Initial autopsy results released Thursday showed the firefighters died from burns, carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, or a combination of the factors. Their bodies, which are in Phoenix for the autopsies, were expected to be taken 75 miles northwest to Prescott on Sunday. Each firefighter will be in a hearse, accompanied by motorcycle escorts, honor guard members and American flags.

A memorial service planned for Tuesday is expected to draw thousands of mourners, including firefighters' families.

The Hotshots crew had deployed Sunday to what was thought to be a manageable lightning-caused forest fire near the small town of Yarnell, about 60 miles from Phoenix. Violent winds fueled the blaze and trapped the highly trained firefighters, most of them in the prime of their lives. The Hotshots deployed their fire shelters, which can briefly protect people from flames, but only the crew's lookout survived.

The nation's biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and dry conditions that caused the fire to explode. A team of forest managers and safety experts is investigating what went wrong and plan to release initial findings by the weekend.

Nearly 600 firefighters continue to fight the blaze, and it was 80 percent contained as of Thursday night. The fire has destroyed more than 100 homes and burned about 13 square miles. Yarnell remained evacuated, but authorities hope to allow residents back in by Saturday.

Operations section chief Carl Schwope said the morale of firefighters is going up as they move toward full containment. He said they want to put the fire out as a way to pay their respect to the fallen firefighters.

"I think we're getting to the point now where this fire's almost out, we'll all go home and it's a whole new reality," he said.

Across town from the July Fourth carnival, the wife of the Hotshots leader and founder spoke publically about her husband, Eric Marsh, for the first time since his death.

"Eric was 90 percent a Granite Mountain Hotshot, and the 10 percent was left for us," Amanda Marsh said.

Greg Fine, whose daughter Leah had been engaged to McKee, circled the memorial at the Hotshots headquarters, taking photos of the tributes to the man who was to be his son-in-law.

On his shirt, he wore a laminated photo of McKee with his daughter, who was grinning with short bleach blond hair. They had been engaged for 1 1/2 years. Fine said his daughter is avoiding the crowds. She and her father plan to spend the afternoon with McKee's family at home.

"We're going to probably laugh and cry and have something to eat, and then laugh and cry some more," he said. Then he said he was glad other residents were celebrating the Fourth.

"Life has to go on," he said.


Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix, Brian Skoloff in Yarnell, Felicia Fonseca in Prescott and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.

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