At Arizona firefighters memorial, mourners display their grief

A fence in Prescott, Ariz., has become a public memorial for people to express their grief over the fallen firefighters.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. - They were simple yet personalized images of grief - shovels, crosses and toy firetrucks - assembled on a chain-link fence that served as the canvas for a town’s collective sorrow over its lost crew of firefighters.

Many of the memorials came in groups of 19, a grim flourish to symbolize the 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshots who died Sunday fighting a wildland fire that doubled back on them, consuming them as they scrambled to don a last-ditch layer of protective gear.

At one end of the L-shaped, block-long memorial outside the building that the hotshots called their headquarters, 19 shovels were laid end to end, wooden-handled, their black metal ends gleaming in the July sun.


There were 19 simple wooden crosses, each carrying the first name of a firefighter - including Andrew, Travis, Dustin and Grant - an intimate farewell for men this town considered their own. Next door, someone had expressed themselves a bit differently: 19 metal crosses that looked to have been carefully fashioned in a craftsman’s garage, rounded along the ends, each bearing a simple red rose.

There were 19 miniature stuffed dogs lined up shoulder to shoulder, 19 small American flags, 19 blue ribbons attached to 19 white grave markers. And 19 sets of gloves, the kind that firefighters wore out in the hinterlands to protect their hands during their labors to protect properties and lives.

A ways down the fence, 19 water bottles surrounded a bouquet of flowers, and next to that, another cluster of 19 bottles circled a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800 malt liquor.

Many who came to view the memorial Tuesday, two days after the firefighters lost their lives, were overcome. Both men and women wept openly. They held hands. Fathers clutched tightly their infant sons who pointed at the colorful icons as though they were prizes at a summer carnival. Solitary people bowed their heads, as though in private conversation or prayer.

Roy Day, a retired truck driver with a face etched from years in the sun, admitted that he never knew any firefighters personally. But last week, this same crew had battled to save a group of homes where Day lived.

He never got to thank them personally. So, on Tuesday, he did.

“I didn’t know these boys, but in a small town like this, they’re family,” he said. “Looking at these images, I kind of feel they all could have been my own sons. They were all so young, most of them anyway, just kids into this job for the excitement, and as a way to feed a family.”

Day said you read all too often in the newspapers about firefighter deaths, but not 19 at once, not all from one small town. This town.

“It’s a shock for Prescott,” he said. “A wound.”

Standing nearby, Day’s wife, Shelly, was silent. When asked why she came, she paused for a moment before answering: “Why wouldn’t you come?”

Not all of the images came in groups. Some where singular, but just as powerful. Such as the large metal plate, shaped like a firefighter’s badge, that listed each man’s name along with the message: “Last Alarm 6-30-2013. Sons, brothers, husbands and fathers.”

There were firefighter caps, T-shirts and American flags with notes written along the white stripes, including one that read “Real Heroes Don’t Wear Capes” and “Brothers in Spirit; Rest in Peace Together.” And a portrait of an angel with his head in his hands, as in disbelief.

There was a red toy firetruck set carefully in the dirt and a child’s drawing of a red ladder truck with a scrawled note: “Thank you. We love you.” Next to that was a brown stone with a note to the son of one of the lost men. “Ryder, your Daddy is a hero. He will be in our hearts forever,” it read, signed Mrs. Huord.

Jim and Lynda Matakovich stood silently, holding hands. Transplants from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they were attracted by Prescott’s small-town vibe. Jim worked for a while with one of the firefighter’s wives.

He thought it was a good idea to come down and pay his respects. His wife agreed. On Monday, she said, she delivered a note of sympathy to the fire station near her home. Just having it there gives her a sense of peace. “You wouldn’t survive in fire country without boys like these,” she said.

Nearby, a woman pinned a rose next to a photograph of fallen firefighter Kevin Woyjeck, taken from behind, his name spelled across his helmet. “Way too soon,” the note read. “Kev, we’ll love you always.”

One woman wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt suddenly burst into tears. “My dad’s in heaven - he was a firefighter,” she said. “I feel Prescott’s pain.”

Standing next to her, Harry Warneke was too overwhelmed to weep. His 25-year-old son, William, was one of the hotshots killed in the fire. The 57-year-old Hemet rancher said he rushed to Prescott as soon as he heard news of the tragedy.

He was listening to the radio late Sunday when he heard the first reports of the deaths, but the location was wrong. He stayed up all night, monitoring other radio reports. Then, at 2 a.m., he heard the town of Yarnell named, and he knew.

“Certain things you just feel,” he said. “I knew my boy was dead. In the most horrible way you could die. In a fire.”

He said his son’s pregnant wife was also at the memorial but asked that she be left in peace. “She doesn’t want to be bothered. She’s just kind of numb.”

Then his face reddened.

“Find out what the politicans are doing to support the wives of all these dead men,” he said. “See if they’re going to follow through with these girls. Ask ‘em.”

Then he walked away. Nearby was a sealed white envelope with the word “hotshots,” a private message amid a wave of public grief.


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