PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. — The 19 firefighters were mourned slowly, as if those who knew them wanted to relive each memory before it, too, was gone for good.
Over the parched mountains from where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died a little more than a week ago while battling what became the deadliest wildfire since the 1930s, thousands of firefighters and family members packed an arena Tuesday for a two-hour memorial to honor their bravery.
Hundreds of others watched outside on giant screens as firefighters and politicians told stories of the men, recalling the firefighting brotherhood that bound them.
“I don’t have the privilege of knowing any of these heroes personally, but I know them,” Vice President Joe Biden said at the memorial. “I know them because they saved the lives of my two sons when a tractor-trailer broadsided my daughter, my wife and my two sons.”
“My wife and daughter died. They saved my guys,” Biden continued. “There’s an old saying: All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters. Thank God for you all.”
Brawny and lionhearted, the men took deep pride in fighting the wildfires that rage across the West each summer. They were an elite group who could trudge miles up a mountainside to cut fire lines, weighted down with heavy gear, while smoke and heat swirled around them.
On the afternoon of June 30, they had made their way to a tinder-dry area around Yarnell Hill to take on a seemingly small fire. But the wind — a wilderness firefighter’s mortal enemy — turned on them. A fire that looked beatable suddenly roared back to life, cutting off escape routes, rendering protective gear powerless and killing 19 of the 20 crew members.
“Each of them was my adopted son. I loved them, their hearts. I saw joy in the each of them when they were doing their jobs,” said Darrell Willis, the chief of the Prescott Fire Department’s wilderness fire division, who wore the same pants and boots he had on the day his men were killed.
The service was the latest ceremony in a week of grieving for the firefighters, the most killed in a single episode since 9/11. On Sunday, thousands lined the streets as a procession of white hearses drove some 100 miles, from the desert outside Phoenix to the pine forests of Prescott, where many of the men will be buried this week.
For the last few days, firefighters from around the country have poured into Prescott to pay their respects, visiting the makeshift memorial that sprang up near the station where the Hotshots were based.
At the close of Tuesday’s memorial, moments before a solitary bell sounded the final alarm for the 19 fallen firefighters, Brendan McDonough, the only one of his crew who survived the fire, recited the Hotshot’s Prayer.
“For if this day on the line, I should answer death’s call,” McDonough read. “Lord, bless my Hotshot crew, my family, one and all.”
PHOTO: Retired Moline, Ill. firefighter Mike Radford watches a memorial service for Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots on a screen from a parking lot outside Tim's Toyota Center, Tuesday, July 9, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz. Thousands of firefighters from around the nation arrived to pay final respects at the memorial at a minor league hockey arena in Prescott Valley, not far from where nineteen firefighters died Sunday, June 30 while battling a blaze on a ridge in Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)