PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The firefighters walked down the bleachers in a silent gymnasium full of mourners, their heavy work boots drumming a march on the wooden steps.
They bowed their heads for moments of silence at the front of an auditorium that was so packed organizers had to send people outside for fear of violating the fire code. The burly men then hugged each other and cried at the end of a deeply emotional memorial Monday evening in the Arizona mountain town of Prescott.
More than 1,000 people gathered in the gymnasium on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University as others throughout the state and beyond also mourned the deaths of the 19 Prescott-based firefighters killed Sunday outside nearby Yarnell. The day marked the nation's deadliest for fire crews since Sept. 11, 2001.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice at the memorial as he described throwing a picnic a month ago for the department's new recruits and meeting their families.
"About five hours ago, I met those same families at an auditorium," he said. "Those families lost. The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost, the state of Arizona and the nation lost," he said before receiving a standing ovation as he left the lectern.
For the 19 killed, violent wind gusts turned a lightning-caused forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.
In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters — members of a highly skilled Arizona-based Hotshot crew — had unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant shelters and rushed to cover themselves on the ground. But the success of the shelters depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging fire.
Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.