SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Nation/World

July 10, 2013

'Bless my Hotshot crew': Survivor speaks at vigil

(Continued)

Alumni of the Granite Mountain Hotshots sat in the front rows, with about 1,000 members of the fallen firefighters’ families surrounding them in seats on the floor of the arena. Those who first responded to the Yarnell Hill Fire sat in the rows behind them.

Darrell Willis, a Prescott Fire Department division chief, said he traveled with the crew a couple of years ago when they fought a fire in Colorado. On the way back, the unit stopped in Glenwood Springs and then climbed Storm King Mountain, where 14 firefighters died in 1994.

“We spent the entire sunny summer afternoon evaluating, studying, talking about what happened there 19 years ago,” Willis said. “They were truly committed to never letting something like this ever happen again. They were committed to returning to you after every assignment. But there was another plan.”

The highly specialized crew was part of a small community of Hotshots nationwide. There are only about 110 of the 20-person teams, mostly stationed west of the Mississippi River.

McDonough was assigned to give a “heads-up on the hillside” for the team on that fateful afternoon, said Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward. McDonough notified the crew of the rapidly changing weather that sent winds swirling erratically and caused the fire to cut off his team’s escape route, then swiftly left his post for safety.

Ward has said it’s just been too tough on McDonough, but that “he did exactly what he was supposed to.”

Tuesday’s memorial was the last of a handful of vigils for the men before the first of 19 funerals begin later in the week.

Ron Merrell, pastor of Heights Church, asked for comfort in an opening prayer, saying the past week has felt like “hell on Earth,” leaving the families and firefighting community broken, confused, hurt and numb. He held up the firefighters as heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice not only in death but in life.

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