PHOENIX — The bodies of 19 elite Hotshot firefighters haven't been left alone since they were pulled from a charred Arizona mountainside last week. It's a tradition among the close-knit crews everywhere to stay by the fallen until they're handed off to families for burial.
Thousands of firefighters from around the nation are now expected to attend a memorial service for the men to pay final respects on Tuesday at a minor league hockey arena in Prescott Valley, not far from where they died Sunday, June 30.
Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun by smoke and fire while battling a blaze on a ridge in Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. One member survived — Brendan McDonough, 21, who was serving as a lookout and wasn't in the immediate burn zone.
Dignitaries expected to attend the memorial include Vice President Joe Biden, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. McDonough will offer what's called "The Hot Shots Prayer," which ends with a line that will most certainly be difficult for the young man to read: "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 was assigned to give a "heads-up on the hillside" for the team on that fateful afternoon, said Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward. He notified the crew of the rapidly changing weather conditions that sent winds swirling erratically and caused the fire to cut off his team's escape route, then swiftly left his post for safety.
McDonough has not spoken publicly about the ordeal. Ward said it's just been too tough on him, but that "he did exactly what he was supposed to."
"He's trying to deal with the same things that we're all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that's compounded being there on the scene," Ward said last week.
The highly specialized crew was part of a small community of Hotshots nationwide, just about 110 of the 20-person teams mostly stationed west of the Mississippi River.
The blaze had burned about 13 square miles before firefighters gained control over the weekend.
The Tuesday memorial service, "Our Fallen Brothers: A Celebration of Life," will be the last of a handful of vigils for the men before the first of 19 funerals begin later in the week.
As final preparations were being made for the service, hundreds of people who were forced from their homes were allowed to return this week, finding a landscape drastically different than the one they remembered.
Vehicles lined up along the highway into Yarnell well before the evacuation order was lifted at 9 a.m. Monday. Authorities checked everyone's identification to prove their residency so they could have a couple days to sift through the ashes of their homes before the area opens to the public Wednesday.
Small shops that sell antiques, saddles and groceries remained intact, but the fire that broke out June 28 created a patchwork of destruction that destroyed more than 100 homes, many reduced to ashes.
"It's a bittersweet day today, driving through the town and seeing it burnt, and knowing a lot of people don't have homes," said Yarnell resident Tammy Consier.
But, she added: "This is an awesome community, there's going to be beauty from the ashes."