Firefighter remembered after mountain fall

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- He was one of the most recognizable members of the Phoenix Fire Honor Guard. Gary Johnstone was front and center playing the bagpipes last summer as thousands of mourners paid a final tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Those who knew him well say serving his community was more than a career, it was a calling.

The veteran firefighter was a member of the technical rescue team, which rescues people off mountains. Sadly, while off-duty, he was caught on the other end Friday morning.

Chopper 3 was above Camelback Mountain around 8 a.m. as members of his team were dispatched.

Johnstone was rappelling with his son and two of his son's teenage friends when he and two of the boys fell about 30 feet on the Echo Canyon Trail. Johnstone lost his life.

Fellow firefighter Hank Oleson spoke with 3TV about the loss. "It's just disbelief," he said.

Johnstone recently played the bagpipes at Oleson's retirement party from the Sun City Fire Department, where the two worked together for a decade.

Oleson recalled a chilling conversation the two had. "I told him, 'You're only doing this because you don't want to come to my funeral,' and, of course, he came back and said, 'I'll be more than happy to come to your funeral just as long as it's not too soon.' "

With heavy hearts, Phoenix Fire officials hope others can learn from this tragedy.

"Those mountains are incredibly dangerous and they know no boundaries, and the level of experience doesn't necessarily play a part in what can happen on them," said Deputy Chief Shelly Jamison.

Johnstone worked as a firefighter with Sun City for a decade before joining Phoenix Fire 15 years ago.

At last report, one of the boys was listed in extremely critical condition, the other stable. Johnstone's son was not injured.

Phoenix police are investigating but say it appears to be a tragic accident.


Off-duty firefighter killed, 2 teen boys injured while rappelling at Echo Canyon