Skip to main content

'I miss my brothers': Survivor pays tribute at Arizona firefighters memorial

By Jason Hanna, CNN
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Wed July 10, 2013
  • Hotshot team was "an elite unit in every sense of that phrase," Vice President Joe Biden says
  • Thousands attend memorial for 19 fallen members of a "hotshot" Arizona firefighting team
  • Firefighters died in an Arizona wildfire June 30
  • Unit's lone remaining member recites firefighters' prayer, gets standing ovation

(CNN) -- The 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona wildfire last month understood what few did, Vice President Joe Biden told thousands who attended their memorial Tuesday.

They realized, he told a packed arena in Prescott Valley, that integrity "is measured by whether you respond to the needs of your neighbors."

"(Help) came in the form of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots who rushed toward the flames as everyone else retreated. And in the process, 19 of them gave their lives," Biden said.

Opinion: When heroes face down fire -- and fate

"These men were some of the strongest, most disciplined, tenacious, physically fit men in the world -- an elite unit in every sense of that phrase," Biden said. "... They raced to embrace life just like they raced (to) the fight against ... the raging fire on Yarnell Hill."

 A hearse carrying the body of Christopher MacKenzie arrives at Los Alamitos Air Field, California, on July 10. MacKenzie was one of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives when they became trapped and their position overrun by flames from the Yarnell Hill Fire, southwest of Prescott on June 30. A hearse carrying the body of Christopher MacKenzie arrives at Los Alamitos Air Field, California, on July 10. MacKenzie was one of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives when they became trapped and their position overrun by flames from the Yarnell Hill Fire, southwest of Prescott on June 30.
Remembering the Arizona firefighters
Photos: Remembering Arizona firefighters Photos: Remembering Arizona firefighters
Prescott remembers its heroes
Family mourns fallen firefighter
Solemn procession for fallen firefighters
Expert: Shelters useless in Yarnell fire

Biden and other dignitaries -- including Gov. Jan Brewer and the state's U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake -- joined relatives and a grieving community for the memorial, which paid tribute to the 19 elite firefighters who were overcome by a raging inferno on June 30.

100-mile procession for fallen firefighters

The 19 -- members of the Prescott Fire Department's elite Granite Mountain Hotshots wildfire crew -- died while battling the Yarnell Hill fire, which consumed thousands of acres northwest of Phoenix.

Officials have said it appears the 19 were forced to lie down under fire shelters, blankets meant to protect against flames and heat, as a last resort after the fire suddenly changed directions.

The thousands who filled Tim's Toyota Center west of Prescott gave a standing ovation to the unit's only survivor, Brendan McDonough, as he was introduced. Officials said McDonough was the unit's lookout away from the burn zone, and warned his crewmates by radio that the fire had changed direction.

The fallen firefighters: who they were

After reciting a firefighters' prayer, McDonough made a simple tribute to his comrades.

"I miss my brothers," he said, "and we're here to remember them. I love my family ... thank you for supporting me."

The speakers were flanked by pictures of the 19. Brewer said they were "heroes, gone at the turn of the wind."

"They were protectors, defending our communities, safeguarding our friends, family and strangers alike," she said. "To the Yarnell 19, we will never forget your sacrifice and that of your families."

Opinion: Why lasting compassion matters

Also speaking was Darrell Willis, the Prescott division fire chief who founded the hotshot group -- one of about 180 elite teams in the country that are called to fight wildfires up close and clear out the brush that otherwise would fuel it.

Willis praised his fallen colleagues' courage courage, professionalism and skill, telling the grieving relatives to "take comfort in the fact that I would have followed them blindfolded in the very (spot)" near Yarnell.

"They brought everything to the table. They gave their all. They were, in my words, right and tight," he said.

The 19 firefighters were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.

How you can help

Part of complete coverage on
Arizona wildfire
Nineteen firefighters died while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona on Sunday, June 30. Get to know who these fallen firefighters were in our interactive.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Mon July 8, 2013
The bodies of 19 Arizona firefighters killed in a wildfire went home in a somber procession of more than 100 miles across the state.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Wed July 3, 2013
Brendan McDonough, a lookout for his elite 20-man Arizona wildfire-fighting crew, saw Sunday's blaze change directions and warned his team by radio from his hilltop perch.
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
The mother of one of the firefighters that died in a fire in Prescott, Arizona, remembers her son.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Joe Woyjeck last talked to his son Kevin, the outdoors enthusiast who took up his father's firefighting profession, on the phone just hours before Kevin died.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Wed July 3, 2013
Fire falling and bouncing and pouring like lava down mountainsides. Fire taking your breath and replacing it with fire. Or at least that's what if feels like during a blow-up.
updated 10:56 PM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Piers Morgan talks with the family of firefighter Robert Caldwell, who lost his life battling the Arizona wildfire.
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
One of the men killed fighting a massive wildfire in Arizona left behind a fiancee who is pregnant.
updated 12:16 PM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
Memorials and vigils remember the men lost in the Yarnell fire.
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
They were part of an elite squad confronting wildfires on the front line, setting up barriers to stop the spreading destruction. But in their unpredictable world, it doesn't take much to turn a situation deadly.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Fri July 5, 2013
Click through our gallery to see photos of the raging fires in Arizona.