Nation Grieves After Arizona Firefighting Tragedy
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
We're visiting a community this morning that is dealing with a stunning tragedy. On Sunday, 19 firefighters from the town of Prescott, Ariz., were doing their jobs - battling a vicious wildfire to protect a small ranch town that was in its path. They were all members of an elite crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but no amount of training could protect them when the wind gusted and the flames took a sudden turn.
Yesterday afternoon, we learned the names of the 19 firefighters, and the community of Prescott began dealing with the reality of losing so many people. That wildfire, the deadliest in the United States in 80 years, is still burning out of control, even as the community turns its attention to the victims. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.
FIRE CHIEF DAN FRAIJO: Andrew Ashford, 29 years old. Anthony Rose, 23 years old...
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Nineteen names, 19 ages; 21 to 43. And as Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo read each one, heads hung a little lower in the Prescott High School gym.
FRAIJO: Robert Caldwell, 23...
ROTT: Brian Scates sat in the bleachers, his head buried in his hands.
BRIAN SCATES: I knew Robert Caldwell. Great guy.
ROTT: They were friends, Scates says, played football together in high school. Yesterday, when he got home from work, his wife told him the tragic news.
SCATES: That a couple of them had died. And it just broke to my heart to where I couldn't even imagine - I didn't even want to come here, but I had to at least have some closing with him.
ROTT: Scates has recently become a dad, he says. So had Caldwell.
SCATES: I just couldn't imagine those little boys, I mean, having to grow up without a daddy. So...
ROTT: A lot of sentences are going unfinished in Prescott this week. News that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overtaken by flames has put the town in a trance.
Just weeks ago, the town was singing the firefighter's praises when the crew helped put out another fire, just north of town.
TONI TANNILLE: Well, these same firefighters that just died...
KATHY BRYAN: Saved us. We were evacuated a week ago.
ROTT: That's Toni Tannille and Kathy Bryan. They say they're houses were saved by the Granite Mountain fire crew.
TANNILLE: They were so polite. And we said - we were at the neighbor's house where the fire had burned right down to his fence, and we said: Come on under in the shade and, you know, relax. And, you know, and they wouldn't sit down and they said, no, ma'am, no ma'am. We're fine.
BRYAN: We had lemonade for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")
ROTT: Hundreds of people gathered Monday evening for a community meeting that turned into a memorial service for victims. The crowd was so large, its speakers had to be set up outside so that people could listen as thunderstorms passed overhead.
Don Devendorf is a fire marshal for the Prescott Fire Department. He says he went on vacation two weeks ago, and when he left, he had a Hotshot crew.
DON DEVENDORF: Twenty guys that were hanging out every morning and checking out their equipment and proud of the fact that they were Hotshots and recognizing they were an elite firefighting force of a very small number nationally. Two weeks ago, that's what we had. Today, we have an empty building.
ROTT: It's not going to be easy to go back to work, he says. With the 19 deaths, they lost nearly 20 percent of the city's entire firefighting corps.
DEVENDORF: We don't have a Hotshot crew, but we will still fight wild land fires.
ROTT: And they'll have to. The fire that claimed those 19 lives is still burning uncontrolled and uncontained, about 30 miles southwest of town. Over 400 firefighters - including a few other Hotshot crews - are still battling the blaze, which has now charred over 50 structures and 8,000 acres.
Nathan Rott, NPR News, Prescott, Ariz.