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UPDATE: Radio problems cited in deaths of 19 firefighters

UPDATED: Sunday, September 29, 2013 --- 6:56 a.m.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- An investigation into the June deaths of 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona blaze has found a litany of problems stemming from inadequate radio communication.

The report by a team of fire experts cites improperly programmed radios, vague updates, and a 3minute communication blackout just before the flames engulfed the men.

The report says at the moment the firefighters were killed, an air tanker carrying fire retardant was hovering overhead, waiting for an update about their location.

The findings were released Saturday.

The 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots team arrived on June 30 to fight the fire outside Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. About nine hours later, the crew radioed that they were trapped by flames and deploying their shelters. One crew member who was assigned as the lookout survived.

Copyright 2013: Associated Press

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UPDATED Monday, July 1, 2013 --- 9:41 p.m.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, Ariz., were killed Sunday when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since Sept. 11. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s. Here are the stories of some of those who died:

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ANDREW ASHCRAFT: AN ATHLETIC, GO-GETTER

Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots, and remembered 29-year-old Andrew Ashcraft as a fitness-oriented student.

"He had some athletic ability in him and he was a go-getter, too. You could pretty much see, from young freshman all the way, he was going to be physically active."

Beneitone said athletic prowess was a must for the Hotshots. "That's what it takes. You gotta be very physically fit, and you gotta like it, gotta like the hard work."

Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was honored to be a member of the Hotshot crew, and "he just had a really sweet spirit about him," Elise Smith, a Prescott, Ariz., resident, told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City.

Ashcraft left behind a wife, Juliann, and four children, the newspaper reported.

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TRAVIS CARTER: STRONG AND HUMBLE

At Captain Crossfit, a gym near the firehouse where the Hotshots were stationed, Travis Carter was known as the strongest one out of the crew -- but also the most humble.

"No one could beat him," trainer Janine Pereira said. "But the thing about him, was he would never brag about it. He would just kill everyone and then go and start helping someone else finish."

Carter, 31, was famous for once holding a plank for 45 minutes, and he was notorious for making up brutal workouts.

The crew recently did a five mile run during wilderness training, then he made them go to Captain Crossfit in the afternoon for another really hard workout.

"The other guys who came in here always said that even though he was in charge, he was always the first one at the fire, the first one in action," Pereira said.

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DUSTIN DEFORD: DRY SENSE OF HUMOR

Dustin DeFord, 24, tried out for the Hotshot crew in January 2012, telling friends on Twitter that he had passed the physical fitness test and asking for prayers as he moved on to the interview stage of the process.

He moved to Arizona from Montana after he was hired, and he worked to improve his skills on the climbing wall at a gym near the firehouse.

"He listened very well. He was very respectful," said Tony Burris, a trainer at Captain Crossfit. "He kind of had a dry sense of humor."

Another trainer, Janine Pereira, echoed that sentiment.

"You would say something to him, and he would respond with a crack, which was funny because he was so shy," she said.

Soon after he interviewed for the Hotshots, DeFord signed up for the Spartan Race, a rugged, eight-mile challenge through the mud and around various obstacles in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix.

"I am being amazing," he wrote on Twitter, in reference to the race.

Several months later, in June 2012, he tweeted: "First Fire of the season."

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CHRIS MACKENZIE: `JUST LIKE HIS DAD'

An avid snowboarder, 30-year-old Chris MacKenzie grew up in California's San Jacinto Valley, where he was a 2001 graduate of Hemet High School and a former member of the town's fire department. He joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department, longtime friend Dav Fulford-Brown told The Riverside Press-Enterprise.

MacKenzie, like at least one other member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, had followed his father into firefighting. Michael MacKenzie, a former Moreno Valley Fire Department captain, confirmed that he had been informed of his son's death.

"I can't talk about it," he said.

Fulford-Brown, also a former firefighter, feared for the worst as soon as he heard the news of the Arizona firefighters. "I said, `Oh my God, that's Chris' crew.' I started calling him and calling him and got no answer," he told The Press-Enterprise. MacKenzie, he said, "lived life to the fullest ... and was fighting fire just like his dad."

"He was finishing his credentials to get promoted and loved the people. It's an insane tragedy.

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ERIC MARSH: HOOKED ON FIREFIGHTING

Eric Marsh, 43, was an avid mountain biker who grew up in Ashe County, N.C., but became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Arizona State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of his cousin. Marsh lived with Racquer and her then-husband during the winters from 1992 through 1996 in North Carolina, but kept returning to Arizona during fire season.

After college, he kept working as a firefighter, eventually landing a full-time job and settling in northern Arizona. He even moved his parents to the state, she said. Marsh was superintendent of the Hotshot crew and the oldest of the 19 who died.

"He's was great -- he was the best at what he did," Racquer said. "He is awesome and well-loved and they are hurting," she said of his family.

Marsh was married but had no children, said his cousin, Scott Marsh of Pisgah Forest, N.C. His father, John Marsh, told the Jefferson Post newspaper in Jefferson, N.C., that his only child "was a great son."

"He was compassionate and caring about his crew."

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SEAN MISNER: `TREMENDOUS HEART AND DESIRE'

Sean Misner, 26, leaves behind a wife who is seven months pregnant, said Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa Barbara County, where Misner graduated in 2005.

Misner played varsity football and also participated in the school's sports medicine program where he wrapped sprained ankles and took care of sidelined athletes.

"He was a team player, a real helper," Swanitz told The Associated Press on Monday.

In high school, Misner played several positions including wide receiver and defensive back. He was slim for a high school football player, but that didn't stop him from tackling his opponents, recalled retired football coach Ken Gruendyke.

"He played with tremendous heart and desire," Gruendyke said. "He wasn't the biggest or fastest guy on the team but he played with great emotion and intensity."

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SCOTT NORRIS: THE `IDEAL AMERICAN GENTELMAN'

Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott through his part-time job at Bucky O'Neill Guns.

"Here in Arizona the gun shops are a lot like barbershops. Sometimes you don't go in there to buy anything at all, you just go to talk," said resident William O'Hara. "I never heard a dirty word out of the guy. He was the kind of guy who if he dated your daughter, you'd be OK with it.

"He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman."

O'Hara's son Ryan, 19, said Norris' life and tragic death had inspired him to live a more meaningful life.

"He was a loving guy. He loved life. And I've been guilty of not looking as happy as I should, and letting things get to me, and Scott wasn't like that at all."

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JOHN PERCIN JR.: STRONG, BRAVE, AMAZING

He loved baseball and had an unforgettable laugh. In his aunt's eyes, John Percin Jr. was, simply, "an amazing young man."

"He was probably the strongest and bravest young man I have ever met in my life," Donna Percin Pederson said in an interview with The Associated Press from her home in Portland, Ore.

John Percin Sr., declined to comment Monday. "It's not a good time right now."

Percin, 24, was a multisport high school athlete who graduated in 2007 from West Linn High School, southeast of Portland.

Geoff McEvers grew up playing baseball with Percin and remembered Percin as a fun-loving guy with an unforgettable laugh, The Oregonian newspaper reported.

McEvers said he learned about the Percin's death through friends.

"It's already tragic when you hear about those who died," McEvers told the newspaper, "but when you find out it's someone you know personally, it's tough."

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ANTHONY ROSE: `BLOSSOMED' AS FIREMAN

Anthony Rose, 23, was one of the youngest victims. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked as a firefighter in nearby Crown King before moving on to become a Hotshot.

Retired Crown King firefighter Greg Flores said Rose "just blossomed in the fire department. He did so well and helped so much in Crown King. We were all so very proud of him."

Flores said the town was planning a fundraiser for Rose and hoped to also have a memorial to honor him.

"He was the kind of guy that his smile lit up the whole room and everyone would just rally around him," he said. "He loved what he was doing, and that brings me some peace of heart."

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TRAVIS TURBYFILL: `BIG, HUGE MARINE'

Known as "Turby" among crew members, Travis Turbyfill got a fulltime position with the Hotshots when another member's girlfriend asked him to quit.

Turbyfill, 27, often worked with other Hotshots at Captain Crossfit, a warehouse filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings near the firehouse. He would train in the morning and then return in the afternoon with his wife and kids.

Trainer Janine Pereira said she recently kidded Turbyfill for skipping workouts. His excuse was that he wanted to spend some quality time at Dairy Queen.

"He was telling me that it's because it was Blizzard week, and he was just going to eat a Blizzard every night," she said.

Tony Burris, another trainer, said he enjoyed watching Turby with his two daughters.

"Because he's this big, huge Marine, Hotshot guy, and he has two little girls, reddish, blonde curly hair, and they just loved their dad," he said.

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BILLY WARNEKE: `DOING WHAT HE LOVED'

Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif. Warneke grew up in Hemet, Calif., along with his fellow Granite Mountain hotshot, Chris MacKenzie. He was a four-year Marine Corps veteran who served a tour in Iraq and had joined the hotshot crew in April, buying a property in Prescott, near where his sister lived, the newspaper reported.

Nancy Warneke said she called her sister after seeing the fire on the news.

"She said, `He's gone. They're all gone,"' Nancy Warneke told The Press-Enterprise. "Even though it's a tragedy for the whole family, he was doing what he loved to do. He loved nature and was helping preserve nature."

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CLAYTON WHITTED: HE'D `LIGHT IT UP'

Full of heart and determination, Clayton Whitted, 28, might not have been the biggest guy around, but he was among the hardest-working. His former Prescott High School coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was a "wonderful kid" who always had a big smile on his face. Whitted played for the football team as an offensive and defensive lineman.

"He was a smart young man with a great personality, just a wonderful personality," said Beneitone. "When he walked into a room, he could really light it up."

Beneitone said Whitted loved being a firefighter and was well-respected among his crew. He says he ran into Whitted about two months ago and they shook hands and hugged, and talked about the upcoming fire season.

"I told him to be careful," Beneitone said.

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KEVIN WOYJECK: FOLLOWING IN HIS FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS

For 21-year-old Kevin Woyjeck, the fire station was always a second home. His father, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency, said Kevin often accompanied his dad to the station and on ride-alongs, and always intended to follow in his footsteps.

"He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand-in-hand," Mora said Monday outside of the fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives.

Mora remembered the younger Woyjeck as a "joy to be around," a man who always had a smile on his face. He had been trained as an EMT and worked as an Explorer, which is a mentorship training program to become a professional firefighter.

"He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I've seen at that age. He wanted to work very hard."

As he spoke, Mora stood before an American flag that had been lowered to half-staff. His own fire badge was covered with a black elastic band, a show of respect and mourning for those lost in the line of duty.

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-- Robert Caldwell, 23

-- GrantMcKee, 21

-- Wade Parker, 22

-- JesseSteed, 36

-- Joe Thurston, 32

-- Garret Zuppiger, 27

Copyright 2013: Associated Press
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UPDATED Monday, July 1, 2013 --- 3:11 p.m.

PHOENIX (AP) -- A caravan of white vans carrying the bodies of 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell wildfire has arrived in Phoenix.

The vans reached the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office shortly after noon Monday.

They passed under the arched ladders of two fire trucks with a large American flag billowing from another vehicle on a turnoff road.

The medical examiner's office in Phoenix will conduct autopsies on all 19 fallen firefighters.

Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick says Yavapai County authorities asked for help because the rural county didn't have the resources to handle so many casualties.

Yarnell is about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

All 19 firefighters killed belonged to the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew headquartered in Prescott.

None of their names have been officially released.

Copyright 2013: Associated Press

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UPDATED Monday, July 1, 2013 --- 11:31 a.m.

YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) -- The lone survivor of an elite firefighting crew that was trapped and killed by an Arizona wildfire escaped because he was moving the crew's truck when the flames roared over the men.

The wind-whipped fire trapped 18 members of a Prescott-based "hotshot" crew and another man working with them Sunday. All 19 died despite deploying tent-like fire structures designed to deflect the heat and flames.

Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling says one member of the hotshot crew survived after separating from the team to move its vehicle.

Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin says the crew and commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.

Reichling says the blaze roughly 85 miles northwest of Phoenix has burned 13 square miles with zero containment.

Copyright 2013: Associated Press

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UPDATED Monday, July 1, 2013 --- 9:05 a.m.

YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) -- More crew members and a top-level management team are headed to an out-of-control wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 elite firefighters and destroyed much of a small town.

A total of 250 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the fire in Yarnell as of Sunday.

The Daily Courier in Prescott reported that the fire had grown to 2,000 acres by early Monday.

The lightning-sparked fire also destroyed 200 homes and sent hundreds fleeing from the town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.

It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. in decades.

Spokesmen for fire managers did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Monday.

Copyright 2013: Associated Press

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Posted Monday, July 1, 2013 --- 8:30 a.m.

From nbcnews.com

By Ian Johnston and Andrew Rafferty, NBC News

Nineteen firefighters - all members of an elite response team - were killed Sunday battling a fast-moving wildfire in Arizona, marking the deadliest single incident for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.

In a statement, President Barack Obama said the "thoughts and prayers" of all Americans would be with the loved ones of the firefighters killed near the town of Yarnell, Ariz., about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. He described the fallen men as "heroes."

The fire, which investigators believe was sparked by lightning, also destroyed more than 200 buildings in the town, which is home to about 700 people.

Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Prescott National Forest, said all 19 killed were members of the 20-strong Granite Mountain Hotshots, a Prescott, Ariz.-based crew who battled blazes in New Mexico and Arizona in recent weeks.

Juliann Ashcraft told azcentral.com that she learned her firefighter husband Andrew was dead while watching the news with her four children. “They died heroes,” she said through tears. “And we’ll miss them. We love them.”

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that "if you ever met them, you would meet the finest, most dedicated people."

"These are the guys that will go out there with 40, 50 pounds of equipment. They'll sleep out there as they try to develop fire lines and put protection between homes and natural resources and still try to remain safe," he said.

Fraijo said the one surviving member of the Hotshots crew had been at a different location. The survivor was a lookout posted several miles away, NBC's TODAY reported.

Rasmussen, who also works as a wildland firefighter, said the men who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire were “young and brave.”

“They went out as a 20-person crew and they have confirmed 19 fatalities,” she said. “Every day they took on risks. They were alert to those risks, but in this case [there were] extreme burning conditions, some unusual wind and then we’re waiting to see whatever else, what other factors may be involved."

Rasmussen said she knew the crew who died, saying they were part of a “close-knit community” of wildland firefighters.

“It hits hard. It hits deep,” she said. “There’s a lot of people suffering tonight.”

Authorities told the Associated Press that the 19 were caught while trying to deploy their fire shelters, tents designed to trap in breathable air and shield the firefighters from flames and heat.

"The general understanding is they were participating in a direct attack on the fire,” Rasmussen added.

This would have involved getting close to the flames – “one foot in the black and one foot in the green” - and trying to create a fire break devoid of fuel, she said.

A web page for the Granite Mountain Hotshots describes the team’s “history of safe and aggressive fire suppression.”

“Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure,” it says. “We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks.”

Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department, told TODAY that “it had to be a perfect storm in order for this to happen” to the Hotshots.

“Their situational awareness and there training was at such a high level that it’s unimaginable that this has happened,” he said.

The National Fire Protection Association website says the only wildland fires to kill more people were at Griffith Park, Los Angeles, in 1933, where 29 died, and the Devil’s Broom wildfire at Silverton, Idaho, in 1910, in which 86 firefighters lost their lives. The attack on the World Trade Center resulted in the deaths of 340 firefighters.

The blaze, which started Friday, began during a punishing heat wave in which temperatures reached well into triple-digits. Fraijo said the hot, dry conditions fueled the fire.

About 200 firefighters were battling the blaze late Sunday and some 400 were being deployed Monday.

Trudy Thompson Rice, communications officer for the Grand Canyon chapter of the American Red Cross, was at a Red Cross shelter set up at Wickenburg High School, where 15 evacuees from the Yarnell area were sleeping early Monday.

“They are sad. They know a lot of them [the firefighters who died],” she said. “They know families, they know people in the fire services.”

“You don’t want to lose any firefighters, but when it’s your neighbors it makes it particularly difficult. They do hand-to-hand combat with these fires and it’s very difficult work.”

Thompson Rice said people at the school were also concerned for the firefighters who had to go back out to deal with the wildfire. “They [the evacuees] are hopeful they can get the fire under control so there’s time for grief,” she added.

Chuck Overmyer and his wife, Ninabill, were helping friends leave when the blaze switched directions and moved toward their home, the Associated Press reported. They loaded up what belongings they could, including three dogs and a 1930 model hot rod on a trailer.

As he looked out his rear view mirror, he could see embers on the roof of his garage. "We knew it was gone," he said.

Obama said in a statement that the firefighters were “heroes -- highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.”

He added: “Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said Sunday was “as dark a day as I can remember,” speaking of a “truly unimaginable loss.”

Senator John McCain said in a statement that the relatives of those who died were “in the thoughts and prayers of all Americans.”
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“This devastating loss is a reminder of the grave risks our firefighters take every day on our behalf in Arizona and in communities across this nation. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten,” he said.

Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix, said in a message posted on his Facebook page that “this terrible tragedy is one of the worst in the history of firefighting and a solemn reminder of the extraordinary danger our first responders face every day.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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