A new book set to be released Tuesday takes readers inside the lives of the 19 men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill fire in June 2013.
"The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting," was written by New York Times Phoenix Bureau Chief Fernanda Santos.
Santos covered the fire for the Times and said it’s a story she fell in love with from the beginning -- despite the horrible outcome -- because of the people involved.
"I became very curious about these 19 firefighters," Santos said. "I wanted to know who they were; what kind of life did they live. Why did they fight fire? What was it about wildfires?”"
ORIGINAL STORY: 19 firefighters dead in Yarnell wildfire
The native of Brazil said she would wake up in the middle of the night and think of another question to which she wanted an answer. She felt the only way to get all the answers was to write a book.
Santos took an eight-month unpaid leave of absence from the Times to devote her full attention to the book.
"I spoke with my editors in New York who were incredibly welcoming of the idea," she said. "I know it wasn't easy because I'm the only reporter here; I cover two states. It’s a very busy beat. But they decided that it was worth taking a chance on me and giving me the time to write this book. I'm incredibly grateful for that."
Reporting on fires wasn’t new to Santos, but she did not set out to write about the technical aspects of the fire. She wanted to focus on the human aspect.
"I thought that the best way to understand what happened that day was to understand what that crew was about," she explained. "And to understand what that crew was about meant understanding the job they did, who they were as people and why they stayed together. That would explain everything that happened. So, my entire research started from that very question."
The task of getting to know the men who would become know as the Yarnell 19 presented challenges for Santos. They were no longer able to grant interviews and speak of their life experiences.
"For me to know what these guys were about, I thought, I have to meet them. But they are not here. So, how do you meet people who are not here anymore? You meet the people who love them. You meet their wives or their parents or their best friends," Santos said.
In this instance, family members and loved ones of all 19 fallen firefighters granted Santos interviews. To Santos, that is a remarkable accomplishment, one she believes set the tone for her book.
"I still don't understand why they did it. Because they didn't have to,' she said. "I didn't promise them anything. I didn't pay them for an interview. I didn't say I was going to do anything for them other than write their story. And by that, I don't mean a story that sugar coats what happened. I think there came a point that they believed in me. They believed I had the best intentions. And the best intention, in this case, was not to have an ax to grind. Just have curiosity about it and let the story take you to the answers."
The goal for Santos was to tell the story of 19 men who believed in one another, who loved the job they did and who chose to stay together until the end. The backdrop of the ultimate story Santos wanted to tell happened to be a fire. According to Santos, however, it could have been any disaster.
The first page of Santos’ book is a diagram from page 88 of the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report, the official account of the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since 1933.
The diagram depicts rectangle like shapes positioned in the way the bodies of the firefighters were found when they died after deploying their fire shelters.
The image, Santos said, fueled her curiosity because the men all died within a 24-by-30-foot area.
"They were right next to each other. Some guys who worked together, because they had jobs that were done in conjunction with somebody else, they were side by side. They never gave up on one another," Santos said. "So, I learned that this was the ultimate message of this book. When you believe in what you do, and you believe in the people you're doing it with -- be it your children, your husband, your colleagues, your neighbors -- you're in this together. And if there's some bad consequence, then you've got to face it together. And if there is some glory, victory, big reward, it's everybody's reward."
Santos sifted through thousands of pages of official reports, interview transcripts accumulated by investigators and had more than 100 hours of recorded interviews of her own with those involved. She traveled to five states and spent three days in Idaho at the National Interagency Fire Center to learn as much as she could about wildland firefighting.
But it was the personalities of the men, the characteristics of the leaders and the culture of the crew that shaped the book.
"I got to meet these 19 men who believed that the best work they could ever do was work that was done together," Santos said.
The book contains something greater than the story of the deaths of the men, said Santos. She hopes readers will glean that there is joy in doing something you love and appreciating and respecting nature. She wants the book to convey that life is about having fun at work, and loving your kids and your wife and loving the person you work with.
Santos said there are layers to the story she tells. She attributes the cohesiveness of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew in part to its superintendent, Eric Marsh. He was among the 19 killed.
Many of those Santos interviewed said Marsh would say, "I don't just want to make them into just great firemen, I want to make them into great men." She believed he looked at wildfire fighting as a calling and not just a job. And that attitude permeated the crew.
"I think, with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, they truly believed that if you did the work, if you put in the effort, that they could make you better," said Santos.
Santos also said she believes the fact that Marsh believed in second chances had a big impact on the team. Marsh was a recovering alcoholic. At least one other person on the crew was in recovery, as well.
The book indicates that Marsh took that young firefighter under his wing and taught him that if he believed in himself and worked hard, Marsh would believe in him and make him part of the team.
"That was a message that was so strong and everybody in the crew had bought into it," Santos said. "They all believed in it. For someone in recovery, I have to imagine it has to be the most important thing that could ever happen to them. To me, it was very clear that this was a very important aspect of this crew -- to give people chances."
Writing the book proved emotional for Santos. She said she got to know the men so well that even though she knew the outcome, she felt as if there might be a way to change what happened.
"I remember how hard it was for me when I finally got to the point in the story where they were going to die," she said. "There were times that I cried in the office because I felt I was killing them again."
She recalls one of those times when she just had to take a break. She went to a nearby coffee shop and ordered a coffee and a bagel. They gave her a number to retrieve her order when it was called.
"They gave me a number, and it was 19," Santos said. "Some people might think that's silly, but to me, it meant something. It meant, 'Go back into that office and write this because you have to write this story.'"
After extensive research, Santos believes that there is not one person or one decision that caused the tragic loss of lives. Instead of looking back and placing blame, Santos believes a better exercise is to look forward and figure out how to make the job safer for those on the front lines of future fires.
"I feel that it is a story that is important and relevant beyond the fire community, beyond people who care about firefighting," Santos said. "It's a human story. It's a story about good people doing honest work who died in a horrible fire where many things went wrong.
"It's a story about family love," she added.
Santos finds peace in writing the book she set out to write. She also believes she answered the question that burned in her conscience -- why the men, all 19 of them, stuck together and didn’t run.
"They believed in the culture of loyalty," she said. "You can hear in the last radio communication, the chain saws buzzing in the background. They still believed they could survive. And the reason they believed they could survive is because they were together and I thought that that was such a powerful image."
Santos will be hosting a signing at Changing Hands, 300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, on Thursday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.99+tax for one hardcover copy of the book and admission for two people. Click here for details.
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