Fellow Firefighters Mourn Hotshot Woyjeck's Death

One of the 19 elite firefighters killed in Arizona was 21-year-old Kevin Woyjeck of Seal Beach, California. The young man followed in his father's footsteps to become a firefighter.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear now about one of those 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters who lost their lives. Kevin Woyjeck was from of Seal Beach, California, just 21 years old. In becoming a firefighter, he was following in his father's footsteps. Aaron Schrank has that story.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: At Cerritos fire station southeast of Los Angeles, a mostly middle-aged crew cooks dinner in silence as the evening news trumpets a familiar name. To these men, Kevin Woyjeck is not just a fellow firefighter but truly one of their own. This is one of the fire stations Woyjeck grew up in, where he learned to pull a hose and put up a ladder. Scott Miller was post advisor in the Fire Explorer's training program that brought Kevin to the station each week.

SCOTT MILLER: At age 15 and a half, 16, he joined the post and was right away a leader and a motivator for the guys.

SCHRANK: Kevin's dad, Joe Woyjeck, is a fire captain in Los Angeles County. He's stationed just up the road. Scott Miller has worked shoulder to shoulder with Joe over the years and says all the area firefighters are thinking about him.

MILLER: You want to be the one to go off in your career and in your sunset and watch your son come into your footsteps. And with it being Joe's son, I can't even imagine his having to deal with this and put his son to rest; is the toughest part for me.

SCHRANK: Ten miles south in Kevin's hometown of Seal Beach, more than 100 are gathered at the pier, lighting candles and swapping their best Kevin stories. It's nothing official - just a get-together for people to care about Kevin. Classmates, fellow firefighters, dance partners and fishing buddies. Among them is Kevin's 16-year-old sister Maddy. She recalls her brother's signature style - a cowboy hat with leather boots to match.

MADDY WOYJECK: It just breaks my heart because he's never going to get to wear those cowboy boots again - those stupid cowboy boots. And he's never going to get to take me around the house and try to lasso me again. He got me a lot.

SCHRANK: She calls Kevin and her 19-year-old brother Bobby the two musketeers. It's clear from the look on Bobby's face that he's lost more than a brother. Kevin was his best friend.

BOBBY WOYJECK: Me and Kevin did everything together, and I wish that I could have spent his last moments with him, you know. That was the only regret I had, you know, is just letting him go alone.

SCHRANK: Kevin Woyjeck had been working with the Hotshot crew in Arizona since April. Before that, he was working as an EMT and entered the firefighter training academy.

NATHAN HOWARD: His goal was to be a firefighter. In fact, it was his only goal.

SCHRANK: Kevin's high school cross country coach, Nathan Howard, says all of Kevin's other activities didn't compare.

HOWARD: So, school was a means to an end in order to become a firefighter and he made it better.

SCHRANK: Fireman is the first word Kevin's friends and teachers use to describe him. Sure, they also mention his enthusiasm for the outdoors and his square-dancing skills. But fireman, they say, is the label that he was most proud of. Kevin's longtime friend, Brandon Gloss, knows just how much Kevin's dangerous career meant to him.

BRANDON GLOSS: Finally got to do what he wanted to do. It's just I wish, you know, he could do it for longer.

SCHRANK: The sun sets on their impromptu vigil and clusters of people from different parts of Kevin's life form a massive circle to join hands.

JUSTIN CASTANON: All right, everyone, we're going to say the Lord's Prayer, and if you don't know it, just please bear with us.

SCHRANK: Justin Castanon, Kevin's best friend since age nine, leads the group.

CASTANON: All right. Ready? Our Father, who art in heaven, hallow be they name...

SCHRANK: There's no bagpipes or motorcades, no music, not even many parents inside - just a group of young people here to say goodbye to their friend. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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