Nineteen Hotshot firefighters died Sunday battling a fierce blaze near Yarnell, Ariz. Their lives and sacrifice are being remembered by the local community.
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — An evening memorial for the 19 firefighters killed in an Arizona wildfire brought thousands of mourners to a high school football stadium on Tuesday.
The service in the mountain town of Prescott marked the first opportunity for many in the community to gather together since the men fighting a fire in nearby Yarnell died in the line of duty.
The men died Sunday after the blaze they were battling near the small town of Yarnell, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, exploded tenfold in a matter of hours, trapping them.
AP Photo: Chris Carlson
Authorities say the tragedy all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a Prescott-based unit.
The crowd filled the bleachers of a 3,000-seat stadium, with many attending also sitting on the field.
The service struck a deeply religious tone with preachers urging the crowd to offer the families of the victims their love and support.
After one moment of silence, 19 purple balloons - one for each of the fallen firefighters - were released into the air.
On Monday afternoon, more than 1,000 people turned out to honor the Hotshot firefighters.
During a service at a Prescott gymnasium, those in the crowd rocked children in their arms, wiped away tears and applauded robustly after each set of remarks, often rising to their feet. Speakers at the memorial quoted heavily from Scripture.
Families remember firefighters lost in Ariz. wildfire
U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said the Hotshots laid down their lives not only for their friends and loved ones but also for people they didn't even know.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice and paused frequently as he described throwing a picnic a month ago for his new recruits and meeting their families.
Related: Are firefighting tactics archaic?
"About five hours ago, I met those same families at an auditorium," he said during the service, held at the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Those families lost. The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost."
At the end of the ceremony, dozens of wildfire fighters sporting Hotshot shirts and uniforms from other jurisdictions marched down from the top of the bleachers to the front of the gym auditorium, their heavy work boots drumming a march on the wooden steps.
The firefighters bowed their heads for a moment of silence in memory of their fallen comrades as slides bearing each man's name and age were projected behind them.
Here are the stories of some of those who died:
ANDREW ASHCRAFT: AN ATHLETIC, GO-GETTER
Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots, and he remembers 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 resident, told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City.
Ashcraft left behind a wife, Juliann, and four children, the newspaper said.
ROBERT CALDWELL: THE SMART ONE
Friends characterized Robert Caldwell, 23, as the smart man in the bunch.
"He was really smart, he had a good sense of humor," said Chase Madrid, who worked as a Hotshot for two years but sat this year out.
"He was one of the smart guys in the crew who could get the weather, figure out the mathematics. It was just natural for him," Madrid said.
It was Caldwell's intelligence and know-how that got him appointed as a squad boss. His cousin, Grant McKee, was also a Hotshots member and also was killed on Sunday.
"Robert was a gentle giant — he was man of few words," said his aunt, Laurie McKee.
He had just gotten married in November and had a 5-year-old stepson.
"Both of these boys were only interested in having a family life. Robert was newly married, and Grant was engaged. They just wanted the house and the dog," she said.
Mary Hoffmann was grandmother to both boys. "To have two grandsons gone, it's devastation," she said.
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 very 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.
Ap Photo: Prescott Fire Department
Dustin Deford, a member of the Prescott Fire Department Granite Mountain Hotshots, sharpens his chainsaw.
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."
Trainer 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."
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, Calif., 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 about 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."
AP Photo: Courtesy of Scott Marsh
Eric Marsh, left, a member of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, was killed Sunday evening above the town of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix, Ariz.
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, Racquer 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."
GRANT MCKEE: GIVING NATURE
Grant McKee, 21, loved to give things away.
"Even as a child, I'd ask him where things were, and he'd say, 'Oh, such and such liked it.' And sometimes it really cost a lot! But he'd say, 'Oh, he liked it so much,' " said his grandmother, Mary Hoffmann.
"So on his birthday, I started to say, 'I hope you're going to keep this!' " she said.
McKee's cousin, Robert Caldwell, also was a Hotshot and also was killed on Sunday.
"I had four grandchildren, but Grant was the sweetest, most giving nature of any of my grandkids," Hoffman said. "We used to think he was a little angel."
McKee's mother said Grant was training to be an emergency medical technician and intended to work with the Hotshots only for the summer. During EMT training, he would ask for extra shifts at the emergency room. And because his superiors liked him, they would give them to him, Laurie McKee said.
"Grant was one of the most likable people you could ever meet," she said. "Grant was friendly, he was outgoing. Everybody loved Grant."
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."
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 have 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."
WADE PARKER: ANOTHER SECOND GENERATION FIREFIGHTER
At 22, Wade Parker had just joined the Hotshots team. His father works for the nearby Chino Valley Fire Department, said retired Prescott Fire Department Capt. Jeff Knotek, who had known Wade since he was "just a little guy."
The younger Parker had been very excited about being part of the Hotshot crew, Knotek said.
"He was another guy who wanted to be a second-generation firefighter," Knotek said. "Big, athletic kid who loved it — aggressive, assertive and in great shape.
"It's just a shame to see this happen," Knotek said.
John Joseph Percin Jr. 24, was among the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters who were killed Sunday.
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 him 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."
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, Ariz., 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."
JESSE STEED: 'GREAT FOR MORALE'
Jesse Steed's former colleagues remember him as a joker.
"He was a character. If you look at all the old photos of him, he was doing things to make people laugh," said Cooper Carr, who worked with Steed in the Hotshots from 2001 to 2003.
"He was good at impressions, and he sang songs; he was just great for morale. He'd just talk in a funny voice and have us all in stiches," Carr said. "And he was strong as an ox."
Carr remembers that Steed once spent the better part of an hour positioning a water bottle just right for a photo so it would look as if Yosemite Falls was cascading into it.
Steed was also remembered for his dedication to fighting wildfires.
"He did it for a long, long time. I think he started in 2001, when he got out of the Marines. A job like the Hotshots is hard, hard work, and you don't stay in it if you don't love it," Carr said.
Steed, 36, was one of the older members of the crew. Renton, Wash., police officer Cassidy Steed said his brother "always put his life on the line for people who he knew he would never meet."
JOE THURSTON: DARING AND DETERMINED
Back home in Utah, Joe Thurston used to go to an area reservoir with friends and promptly show how fearless he could be.
"He was definitely one of the daredevil types," longtime friend Scott Goodrich told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We went to Quail (Creek) Reservoir, and we'd be finding 40- to 50-foot cliffs that people would be scared to jump off. He would just show up and be front-flipping off of them."
He brought this bold streak to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
"He had all the qualities that a firefighter would need to possess," E.J. Overson, another friend, told the Salt Lake City newspaper. "He was service-oriented, very caring and willing to do some things that many others would say, 'I don't want to get involved.' "
The 32-year-old Thurston, of Cedar City, was also determined, generous and hardworking, his friends said.
He went to Cedar High School and Southern Utah University, played in a band and rode skateboards.
"He was one of the best guys I ever met," Goodrich said.
TRAVIS TURBYFILL: 'BIG, HUGE MARINE'
Known as "Turby" among crew members, Travis Turbyfill got a full-time 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, blond curly hair, and they just loved their dad," he said.
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."
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.
AP Photo: Woyjeck Family
Firefighter Kevin Woyjeck, right, and his father, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Joe Woyjeck.
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.
GARRET ZUPPIGER: A RED BEARD, AND A SENSE OF HUMOR
Garret Zuppiger, 27, loved to be funny, said Tony Burris, a trainer at a gym where many of the Hotshots worked out.
Burris said the two bonded over their hyper-manly ginger facial hair.
"We both had a red beard, and so we would always admire each other's beards," he said. "We also had a few conversations about beer."
Zuppiger's humor was evident on his blog, where he wrote about his grandmother's one-eyed Chihuahua, his "best hair day ever" and a hike with his mother on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. There also are photos of a tongue-in-cheek project to build a "ski-chair," in which a living room recliner was placed atop two skis.
"Garret Zuppiger turns 25!" he wrote in a post several years ago. "Every day is like a gift!!"
Join MSN News on social