The Times West Virginian

July 5, 2013

Firefighters who perished bound together by love of work, adventure

Times West Virginian

— In a year that has seen numerous tragic stories evolve since January, now we have another one that ranks with the worst of all.

Nineteen firefighters killed when trapped by a huge blaze in Arizona.

Nineteen firefighters! This was the biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years. And it was the deadliest single day for fire crews since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But this was the kind of fire these men were hired to do.

This was a tragedy that has the entire nation in mourning. We can all picture these men, and most of them were young, going out to fight a fire that they probably all thought they could cope with in its early stages.

A wind-whipped wildfire overran them on a mountainside northwest of Phoenix. While it was not exactly clear how the firefighters became trapped, the blaze was thought to have “exploded into a firestorm” —a firestorm that overran the crew.

This was a “Hotshot” group of firefighters. That’s a name given to those willing to go to the hottest part of a blaze. These men were described as the best of the best. They were crews filled with adventure seekers whose hard training prepared them for the very worst.

This wildfire has burned about 8,400 acres, or about 13 square miles. That’s a lot of fire.

Firefighters are often known as “first-responders” — those who arrive ahead of everyone else to an emergency situation. First-responders have received a considerable amount of worthwhile praise since 9/11 when so many of them perished.

These firefighters just weren’t men who wanted to fight fires.

Each of these “Hotshot” members was required to pass the U.S. Forest Service’s “Arduous Work Capacity Test” — which entails completing a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes; a fitness goal of a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 35 seconds; 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; 25 push-ups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups.

The “Hotshot” website describes the nature of their work. It “requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people’s experiences,” according to the website. “Environmental extremes, long hours, bad food and steep, rugged terrain demand that we train early and often by running and hiking, doing core exercises, yoga and weight training.”

But now this group of “Hotshots” is gone. All but one of them. Nineteen out of 20. The only one who survived would have been with his buddies, but he was moving his unit’s truck at the time. That simple act saved his life.

Some were young fathers. Some were expectant fathers. Others former athletes, ex-Marines, etc. Some had fathers who were firefighters. They were bound together by a love of hard work and arduous adventure. Their average age was 26.

Arizona’s governor Jan Brewer called Sunday “as dark a day as I can remember” and ordered flags flown at half-staff. The Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team is wearing the No. 19 on the sleeves of their jerseys in memory of the 19 men who died Sunday.

This was another major tragedy for a country that has had too many tragedies for one year.

As the town’s fire chief told a large group in announcing what had happened, “Those families lost. Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost.”

How true.