PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Firefighters Sunday staged a 125-mile procession to bring the bodies of 19 colleagues who died in a wildfire a week ago from Phoenix to the mountain community where they lived.
Nineteen hearses departed from the medical examiner’s office in Phoenix, rolled past a collection of firefighters outside the Arizona state Capitol and passed through the community of Yarnell, where the 19 died.
Firefighters, police officers and everyday people held hands over their hearts or saluted as the motorcycle-led escort slowly drove by and a quartet of bag pipers played a mournful song to a marching cadence. The firefighters’ names were posted on a side window of each hearse.
The procession included several firefighting vehicles, including a truck that bore the name of the elite crew to which the 19 firefighters who died on June 30 belonged.
Lon Reiman of Scottsdale carried two small American flags as he waited for the procession to begin. Reiman said he has several relatives who are firefighters and thought of them once he heard the news of the deaths.
“When you think about their wives, their families and their kids, it just brings tears to your eyes,” Reiman said.
It’s unclear how long the procession will last.
Since their fellow firefighters arrived at the scene where they were killed, the fallen firefighters have not been alone, a tradition among those in the profession in the U.S.
“Since they were discovered, they have never been out of the presence of a brother firefighter,” said Paul Bourgeois, a Phoenix-area fire chief who is acting as a spokesman in Prescott for the firefighters’ families. “From the time they were taken to the medical examiner in Phoenix, while they’re at the medical examiner’s office, when they are received in a funeral home – there will always be a brother firefighter on site with them until they are interred.
“That’s something people don’t realize. We never leave your side,” he said of the tradition. “It’s a comfort to the survivors, whether they’re families or fellow firefighters.”
The firefighters were killed a week ago in the Yarnell Hill fire, sparked by lightning June 28. Crews were closing in on full containment after the fire destroyed more than 100 homes in Yarnell and burned about 13 square miles. The town remained evacuated.
The crew of Hotshots was working to build a fire line between the blaze and Yarnell when erratic winds suddenly shifted the fire’s direction, causing it to hook around the firefighters and cut off access to a ranch that was to be their safety zone.
The highly trained men were in the prime of their lives, and many left behind wives – some pregnant – and small children.
An investigation into the tragedy has found only that winds took the firefighters by surprise; more thorough findings will come much later.