PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- When Travis “Turby” Turbyfill was in kindergarten and they asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he drew a boxy fire truck that resembled a hotshot buggy and wrote, “I want to be a fireman. I want to firefight the fire.”
His adoptive mother, Colleen Turbyfill, saved the drawing, along with the blue-striped Oxford shirt he was wearing the first time she saw him, birthday cards and prom photos she shared with The Times as she sat in the living room of her suburban home Thursday, purple ribbons fluttering outside, the official color of fallen firefighters.
Turbyfill, 54, an auditor for a state workers’ compensation program, said her son grew into a rambunctious teenager who tested his parents’ patience, conspiring with friends to smuggle in blow-up dolls as prom dates and kidnap a local Ronald McDonald statue.
By the time he graduated from Prescott High School, served a year in the Marines in California and returned to attend the fire academy, his fate as the Granite Mountain hotshots’ joker was sealed.
He joined the hotshots in 2010, was recently hired by the Prescott Fire Department and was supposed to start next year -- a safer job, he figured, for a married man with two kids.
He was funny, and enormous -- 6-foot-4 inches with a chest so broad, his grandmother said that hugging him was like embracing a refrigerator.
He could also be gentle with his wife, Stephanie, and daughters Brooklyn, 2, and Brynley, 1.
Turbyfill, an outgoing blond, said her son’s hotshot crew members “picked on each other constantly” but in fun.
She said she generally didn’t worry about Travis being a firefighter -- her father was, and so is her best friend’s husband -- but she worried after he was out fighting the recent Doce fire nearby.
So last Thursday evening, when she stopped by to see Stephanie and her granddaughters and her son happened to be there, she took the opportunity to tell him how nervous she had been.
“When you’re in New Mexico, it doesn’t feel real, but this is too close to home,” she said.
She said her son reassured her.
“He said, ‘It’s OK, we’re the best crew. I’m always safe, and I know what I’m doing,’” she said.
That was the last time she saw him.
She said she had thought her son was off the morning of the Yarnell Hill fire, but figured the crew would head out there: “They were always the first responders, they were the crew who had the muscle, the meat, the brawn.”
Shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday evening, her cellphone buzzed with a news alert: Some firefighters were trapped.
She texted Stephanie at 7:25 p.m., “Do you know where Travis is?”
Stephanie replied: “Yarnell. Haven’t heard from him all day :/”
Colleen wrote back: “Heard there is a crew trapped. Surrounded by fire. They were ok but no way out. Worried sick. If you hear anything please let me know.
“How did you hear that,” Stephanie wrote, “News?”
Colleen told her it had been on a local station and Facebook.
“Bad, bad news. 19 fatalities. Hot shots involved.”
“I’m freaking out,” Stephanie wrote, “My mom is coming over. Let me know if you hear more.”
The last message was sent at 7:36 p.m.
Turbyfill said she hoped for as long as she could that her son had survived: First when officials said it wasn’t clear if the dead were firefighters, then when they said there was one survivor.
By the next morning, his widow was texting her about dental records.
Fire officials would later explain what happened during meetings with the hotshots’ families, she said: “At 16:47, they called in that they were trapped; at 16:48, they said they were embedded, dug in. One minute.”
“It was very rugged conditions: boulders and dirt. I guess they found a small ledge. They thought below them was clear, but it wasn’t,” she said.
The crew apparently didn’t have time to retreat to their designated safety zone, she said.
“The big thing they always say is ‘eyes to the green’ -- you go where there isn’t fire. But by the time they got there, they were surrounded. The part they thought was anchored became a part of the fire. It was like a tornado of fire that whipped around them,” she said.
She said officials told the families that the men’s bodies were found clustered together.
She said she is troubled by the fact that rescuers were not able to reach the hotshots before they died, or slow the fire with slurry and water drops, known as “Bambi buckets.”
“Part of the protocol is to drop three backpacks with GPS in them so they can be found. The smoke was so thick, they couldn’t be found. I hope there’s some technology -- there’s got to be some technology for these boys so they can see them, something they can do so this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “Because one Bambi bucket might have saved them all.”
She said she was reassured to hear that Darrell Willis, a former Prescott fire chief and now the fire department’s wildland division chief, was among those who stayed with the bodies at the site overnight.
A friend in the fire service compared the fire that overtook the hotshots to uncorking a shaken champagne bottle, in that “it just exploded,” she said.
The fire caught everyone off guard, she said.
“It was the Doce fire that had me worried. Little did I know it would be Yarnell,” she said, wondering aloud if she’ll ever be able to drive through that town again.
This coming Sunday, a procession is planned to bring the hotshots’ bodies back to town. There was a debate about the route, she said -- should they take the direct route from Phoenix, or make a point of passing through Yarnell? Veteran firefighters made the call.
“They said that they knew the boys would prefer to go by the way they left,” she said.