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One year not enough time to heal from Yarnell Fire tragedy

A map shows the movements of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew as they fought the Yarnell Hill fire in late June.
A map shows the movements of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew as they fought the Yarnell Hill fire in late June.
/Arizona State Forestry Division

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On this day year the community of Prescott, Arizona was waking up to the horrific news that 19 of their own had died in the Yarnell Hill Fire. On June 30, 2013 the flames engulfed almost an entire crew in a box canyon. On the anniversary, the town was still healing from the enormous loss. KJZZ's Laurel Morales brings us this story from Prescott.

On the anniversary the town was still healing from the enormous loss. 

Dozens of families, friends and firefighters started the day with a hike to the top of Thumb Butte, where the Granite Mountain Hotshots trained.

Duane Steinbrink, the retired chief of Prescott’s wildland division, led the hike.

"They’d pack up full gears, 65 pound backpack carrying chain saws, sig bottles, which is gasoline and oil for the chainsaws," Steinbrink said. "Anyway they’d be carrying 65 pounds plus all their equipment they’d be hiking up to the top of Granite Mountain timed." 

Hotshots are often sent to work in rugged remote parts of the country, so they must meet high physical standards. This crew had a former Marine for a captain, so he made their training particularly strenuous.

Todd Rhines also worked closely with the crew as the fuel management supervisor. 

He said for the past year he’s felt the presence of the men on many sleepless nights.

"They’re still around," Rhines said. "They visit quite often. I don't know if that’s something I want to go away or not. It’s tough. They were my 19 boys so it’s very tough."

"I can’t sit around and mope forever, my brother probably would’ve punched me for doing that,"  Bobby Woyjeck said. 

He took to the trail in honor of his brother Kevin, who died with the crew. 

"Nobody writes a manual for this type of stuff. It’s all about how you turn it around," Woyjeck said.

For Woyjeck that meant becoming an EMT. It would make his brother proud.

Last summer family, friends and community members covered the chain-link fence outside the Granite Mountain Hotshot Station with signs, flags, T-shirts, teddy bears, Matchbox firetrucks, crosses. More than 6,000 items have been catalogued and many are on display at the Saint Michael's hotel downtown.

Katie Cornelius is the volunteer curator for the Prescott Fire Department.

"We have found things that were very special to people that they pulled out of their closet," Cornelius said. "We have a Marine Corps flag attached to a flag with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart attached to it. He gave 'em his Bronze Star and Purple Heart." 

At the end of the day, hundreds of people gathered on the Yavapai County Courthouse Square. The afternoon is warm, sunny but windless, unlike last year at this time. Prescott Fire Battalion Chief Don Devendorf spoke to the crowd.

"The absolute worst thing that can happen to a family is to lose a loved one," Devendorf said. "We lost 19 loved ones. And when I say we I mean all of us. So as we move into the future we cannot forget that we overcame together. It was only because we counted on each other, had the strength and endured."

At 4:42 p.m. when 19 bells ring out at the precise time of the firefighters’ death, it was difficult not to imagine what the men went through in their final moments.

As Granite Mountain Hotshot alumnus Pat McCarty read their names, many in the crowd wiped away tears. 

The sun sank low in the sky and the ceremony came to a close. Bagpipes played Amazing Grace. The honor guard marched on.