PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- The photograph is powerful -- compelling in the eyes of some, an insult to others -- showing the body bags containing the remains of the 19 Granite Mountain firefighters lined up on the scorched earth, each draped in an American flag.
The photo has sparked a public debate after being published Thursday on a social media page dedicated to the elite firefighting crew, who died Sunday fighting the Yarnell Hill fire 30 miles from their home base in Prescott.
The bodies had been removed from the scene where the fire swept over them. Prescott fire officials say that after becoming overrun by flames, the men grouped together and deployed their sleeping bag-like fire shields, the last line of defense against the intense heat of a blaze.
The photograph shows the bodies lined up, ready for transport from the scene, each body bag draped with a flag by an accompanying honor guard. The bodies were removed Monday and taken to Phoenix to undergo autopsies.
The shot apparently was sent to several people outside the close circle of local emergency responders and began circulating widely among firefighters as far away as California. The Los Angeles Times also received a copy, and reporters this week tried to confirm the authenticity of the shot and receive permission from the photographer to possibly publish it.
[Updated at 4:26 p.m. July 5: Once its authenticity was verified, The Times decided to publish it based on its news value.]
Online reaction to the image has been mixed.
“This picture is very overwhelming,” one person wrote. “This is a picture that should be kept private. This does not show respect for these heroes or their families. I would hope this picture would be removed.”
“As a firefighter of more than 25 years, I have witnessed tragedies such as this,” one wrote. “I feel that this picture ... is a meaningful reminder of the sacrifice that these brave, unselfish souls gave of themselves, and paid the ultimate price.”
The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office has also been investigating who took the photograph.
Capt. Jeff Newnum, part of a team that went in to remove the bodies from the scene of the fire, told The Times this week that he took a separate photo of the flag-draped firefighters that was meant to be seen only by the families. The photo he took is similar to the image circulating on Facebook but focuses in closer on the crew and doesn’t show the vehicles in the background.
He said he didn’t know who had taken the other photo and was upset that it had been so widely distributed. Newnum worried that the image could further trouble family members already dealing with the shock of losing loved ones.
Officials requested that The Times not publish the photo out of respect for the families, but that was before the photo was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook.
On Friday, Chief Deputy John Russell said the Sheriff's Office began looking into the second, unofficial photograph when alerted by the media that someone other than Newnum had taken a shot at the scene.
He said 19 copies of Newnum’s “official” photo were delivered to liaisons of the families, each in its own envelope. “To my knowledge, all of those envelopes have been picked up. We took a picture and made it a gift to the families purely out of respect. It was done with dignity. We have not released any photos to the public, ever.”
Russell said there were eight to 10 Prescott firefighters on the scene as well, but he did not know which, if any of them, took the second photograph. “We’ve put a lot of work into this,” Russell said. “We don’t know who took this second photograph and I’m not going to speculate.”
Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department, told the Times on Friday that he suspects a member of his department took the photograph.
“There was nobody else out there, so obviously it was one of us. We’re looking into it,” he said. “We’ve had seveal meetings about this. It’s obviously a hot-button topic.”
Russell said anyone who sees the photo that has been made public should know its intent was to show the dignity of the fallen men. “That’s what the released photograph says to me. That’s how I take it,” he said.
Hailey Barnes, 18, a longtime friend of deceased team member Wade Parker, told The Times that she had mixed feelings about the photograph, which she described as “a little offensive.”
“I don’t know that we were ready to see that photo yet,” she said. “Emotions are really strong. People are still in shock. Friends have passed away. So seeing those bodies lying there on the ground is hard to take.”
“But to me, having the flags over them is also an honor,” she added. “These men are heroes.”
It was a Facebook page devoted to the memory of the Granite Mountain firefighters, not authorized by any of their families, that first posted the photo on Thursday, according to the Arizona Republic, which also documented the controversy.
The photograph has since been taken down, local media reported.
Zeynep Tufekci, a new-media sociologist and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, said the standard for displaying graphic photos varies by audience. It has shifted in the age of social media, when private citizens post photos that news organizations might not.
“It has absolutely made these arguments moot. It’s made them moot in the sense that this picture is available,” Tufekci said. “I think it’s better to show the true cost of war, it’s better to show the true cost of firefighting, it’s better to show what that really means.”
Staff writers Louis Sahagun, Matt Pearce and Rick Rojas contributed this report.