Hotshots remembered


The faces of Grant McKee and Robert Caldwell, superimposed over stars and stripes, grinned out at a couple hundred friends, family members and firefighters from around Orange County who had gathered at the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach on Saturday morning.

The group had come to remember cousins McKee, 21, and Caldwell, 23, who were among the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona.

Dozens of onlookers lined the sidewalks as fire engines and police cars escorted a hearse and limousines bearing family members to the church. Inside, Orange County Fire Authority Pipes and Drums played “America the Beautiful” as they posted flags on either side of the stage.


Speakers at the memorial described McKee and Caldwell as always smiling — a close-knit pair who put others before themselves.

“They had courage, and they loved,” said Scott McKee, Grant McKee’s father. “They loved everybody in here.”

McKee was raised in Costa Mesa, living with his and Caldwell’s grandmother, longtime resident Mae Hoffmann, for part of that time. He attended Newport-Mesa schools from second grade until his senior year at Newport Harbor High, when he moved to Arizona to live with Caldwell and his mother.

He had fallen in with a hard-partying crowd and had started using drugs, family members have said.

Kirk Norton, who coached McKee when he played for Norton’s Pop Warner Pee Wee football team, remembered McKee as the type of kid who never complained, even when life might have given him reason.

“I knew him as a team player, and he went out as a team player,” Norton told the group.

One season, Norton recalled, “Grant should’ve played running back, but we had a bunch of running backs.” McKee offered to play a different position instead.

“He said, ‘Coach, I’ll block. I’ll block for these guys,’” Norton said. “And he did.”

When McKee got to Arizona, Caldwell took his younger cousin under his wing.

“‘I just want to do what Robert does’,” Caldwell’s sister, Taylor Caldwell recalled McKee saying. “I said, ‘What’s that all about?’ He said, ‘It’s the brotherhood—and it’s cheaper than a gym membership’.”

Her brother, she told the group, had a different reason for joining the elite firefighting crew: “I’d rather die in my boots than live in a suit.”

At the end of Saturday’s service, an honor guard member rang a large bell six times — three each for McKee and Caldwell — a tradition signifying that a firefighter’s duty is fulfilled.

In one section of the sanctuary, a sea of black and blue uniforms held their hands in salute as Capt.Thomas Jay of the California Last Alarm Service Team played “Taps.”

The community of Prescott, Ariz., where the Hotshots crew was based, has mourned its loss since early this month. A long procession into town bore the men’s remains on July 7, and thousands attended a memorial for the 19 in neighboring Prescott Valley. McKee will be buried with Caldwell in Arizona.

Saturday, though, McKee’s father, Scott McKee, said that “to exclude any community would’ve been something that would’ve been half-done.”

True, he said, many of the tall young men who stepped forward to shake Scott McKee’s hand after the service knew his son when they were boys, but Costa Mesa was where McKee had grown up.

“I look at it like this — there’s three types of people you meet: people you meet for a season, a reason or a lifetime,” Scott McKee said after the service. “There are a lot of lifetime people here.”

After the service, as friends and family members grabbed plates of barbecue or cookies, Norton hugged Hoffmann, McKee’s and Caldwell’s grandmother.

Hoffmann, who cared for McKee following his parents’ divorce, thanked Norton for being like a second father to her grandson. The pair shared a couple of memories – of the time Norton took McKee on a trip to Las Vegas, or the time Norton hosted a surprise birthday party for the boy at his house.

“He was good to him,” Hoffmann said, patting Norton’s arm. “There are a lot of things I remember.”

While Norton and Hoffmann spoke, a trickle of firefighters walked past, headed back to their engines.