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Community recalls 19 firefighters who died in fire

June 30, 2014
Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — This Arizona city is marking the one-year anniversary of the deaths of 19 wildland firefighters with a simple ceremony — the names of the Granite Mountain Hotshots will be read before a bell chimes for each and bagpipes play "Amazing Grace."

Meanwhile, the men's families on Monday plan to gather at the Prescott cemetery where many of Hotshots are buried for a private service.

Ten of the firefighters were buried there, but each of the 19 has a plot with a bronze grave marker that will be etched with images taken from family photos. Surrounding the plots is a wall where mourners can sit, and room for family members to be buried alongside the firefighters.

"It's remarkable that they indeed did keep all 19 of them together," said Gayemarie Ekker, whose son Joe Thurson was killed. "That as families, we do have that place to go and reflect."

Former Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo and Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis are scheduled to speak to the families at the cemetery.

Joe Woyjeck said his son and his son's girlfriend planned to travel to Prescott to thank people in person for supporting the Hotshots. But the rest of his family will keep things low-key at home in California in remembering his son, Kevin, he said.

Woyjeck and his wife were in Prescott recently and sat on a rock at the site where the Hotshots were overrun by flames in a brush-choked canyon while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire. He said his family has gotten through the tragedy by focusing on something Kevin taught them when he was a boy: that people choose to be unhappy.

"I choose to be happy with this, and I think we're going to celebrate life that day with what we do," he said of the anniversary.

Danny Parker, who lost his son Wade, said aside from going to the cemetery, the family will keep the day's events to a "dull roar."

Dustin DeFord's parents will be traveling from Montana with other family to help out with a fundraiser for needy families on Sunday and will join the other Hotshots' families Monday. His mother, Celeste, said they are assured through their faith that Dustin is thriving spiritually.

"We're the ones missing out, not him," she said. "The memorial, in a sense, is all a facade, because he's alive."

The city of Prescott, which had the country's only municipal Hotshot crew, is shutting down early Monday for the ceremony. The community is paying tribute in other ways, too, including a hike at one of the Hotshots favorite training spots, a play based on items left outside the Hotshots' fire station and a an exhibit of their time on the fire line.

Katie Cornelius has gathered stories of the brotherhood formed by Hotshots who spend months together battling the country's most severe wildfires, of the raucousness at camp that included contests on who could eat the most tubs of gravy. Those stories, along with photos of the men will be displayed on sections of chain-link fence inside the Hotel St. Michael.

"When you start to understand what that life was, you can say, 'what a crazy, awesome life," she said.

The play produced by local musician, author and actor Ered Matthew was inspired by the stories behind items left on a memorial fence. Matthew said he was struck by a T-shirt from Albuquerque, New Mexico, that read: Requirements. No egos. No badges. No resume builders. Willing hearts. The fence allowed a framework for people to express their emotions by leaving books they read to their children, fire hats, roses and stuffed animals, he said.

"Once you know the story of why they left it, people will realize other people share their grief in a similar way," he said.

 
 

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