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Tears, Applause Flow Freely At Firefighters' Memorial

Firefighters from Spokane, Wash. came to Prescott Valley for the memorial service.
Nick Blumberg
Firefighters from Spokane, Wash. came to Prescott Valley for the memorial service.

Just days after 19 sons and husbands were killed on the job in Yarnell, people from around the country came together for a massive public memorial. Thousands of first responders, community members, and volunteers honored their sacrifice, and made it clear that the people who have lost loved ones are far from alone.

Howard Johnson hasn't had much sleep. He flew into Arizona and arrived a little after 1 a.m.

Five short hours later, he and three other members of Spokane County Fire District Four were getting some breakfast on their way up to Prescott Valley to take part in the memorial service for the 19 men killed fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.


The guys from Spokane are also members of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Just the day before, they'd helped organize a memorial for a first responder in their home state. After that ceremony was over, they went to the airport and headed south. But they are not complaining. It was important to them to come for Tuesday's remembrance and beyond.

"Our team's been tasked, we're going to be helping with four different of the individual member's funeral services between now and Saturday," Johnson said.

The firefighters from Spokane were just a few of the scores of first responders who came for the Yarnell 19's memorial. Emergency crews drove in from around the state — Casa Grande, Bullhead City, Daisy Mountain — and from around the country — New Mexico, California.

Looking around, the parking lot was filled with dark navy dress uniforms, purple commemorative ribbons, and the comforting white and red of American Red Cross trucks.

"We're a shoulder to lean on," said Carmela Burke, a Red Cross volunteer from Los Angeles. She was one of 200 volunteers providing water, shade, and emotional support.


"As the attendees come in here, we do have tissues ready for them in case they need it, and we are here to support the community and the families of the fallen firefighters," Burke said.

Lutheran Pastors Mari Larson of Clarkdale and Dave Brandfass of Sedona also came to help.

"We're here to help out the Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Yarnell pastors because they're already overwhelmed with dealing with people in grief. Their hands are pretty full right now, and it's really a privilege to come and help," Larson said.

"We're looking at this as the beginning of a long journey with them," Brandfass said.

Leaders from around the region and around the country came to pay their respects. Governors Jan Brewer of Arizona and Susana Martinez of New Mexico; Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain; cabinet secretaries Sally Jewell and Janet Napolitano; and Vice President Joe Biden.

"We're humbled to be here with you," Biden told the family and friends of the lost men, speaking from experience. More than 40 years ago, his first wife and one of his children were killed in a car accident.

"The day will come when the memory of your husband, your son, your dad, your brother will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye," Biden said.

Tears did flow freely at the service, as did applause for the sacrifice of the fallen men from the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. Perhaps the most resounding applause went to its one surviving member, Brendan McDonough, who read the Hot Shot's Prayer.

"…for if this day on the line, I should answer death's call, Lord, bless my hot shot crew, my family one and all," McDonough read. With jaw quivering, he added, "Thank you, and I miss my brothers."

McDonough's brothers have each been accompanied by an honor guard member since shortly after they were killed, and they'll have honor guard standing by them until they're buried. That means a lot to Flagstaff Fire Captain Bill Morse.

"It kinda cuts into your heart -- like the bagpipes, when they start playing. Every grizzled, old fireman that's been on for a long time and never shows emotion? You start playing the bagpipes, and that all changes for him, a lot," Morse said.

Near the end of the ceremony, four Marine Corps jets flew over in tribute. One split off to form the missing man formation.

But as quickly as they came, the jets cleared the horizon. And just as soon, the hum of media vans and out-of-state fire trucks will no longer ring in the air. The men who gave their lives to protect Yarnell and Peeples Valley will be buried.

Howard Johnson of Spokane knows how much is ahead for the people left behind by the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots.

"After today is really the most important part, because that's when a lot of the emotions start kicking in, that's when the family really needs the support, it's the next day and the day after and the week after," he said.

And in the weeks and months ahead, the loved ones of the men who died on Yarnell Hill will have a family of thousands of first responders and community members standing behind them.