PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Nineteen firefighters killed in a wildfire a week ago went home for the last time, their bodies traveling in individual white hearses in a somber caravan for 125 miles through Arizona cities and towns.
The nearly five-hour-long procession Sunday began near the state Capitol in Phoenix, went through the town where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed and ended in the mountain community of Prescott, where they lived and will be laid to rest this week.
Thousands of people from across the state and beyond stood patiently in triple-digit temperatures in Phoenix, lined highways and overpasses along the route, and flooded the roads of downtown Prescott to pay their respect to the 19, whose deaths are the greatest loss of life for firefighters since 9/11.
They included fellow firefighters, the men’s family members, complete strangers and residents of Yarnell, the small town they died trying to save.
Those along the procession cried, they saluted, they held their hands over their hearts.
“It’s overwhelming to watch this slow procession of 19 hearses,” said a tearful Bill Morse, a Flagstaff fire captain who has been stationed in Prescott for a week helping Prescott fire deal with the tragedy. “The ceremonious air of it all. It’s heartbreaking.”
In downtown Prescott, a bustling and sometimes-rowdy area filled with bars and other businesses known as Whiskey Row grew eerily quiet as the hearses drove by, essentially stopping all activity for several minutes.
“You’ve got this tragic event that happened, you’ve got 19 hearses driving by,” said Jay Averitt, 26, of Prescott. “It puts reality in check.
“It was an honor to be able to watch it,” Averitt said.
Many along the route carried American flags and signs that read, “Courageous, selfless, fearless, beloved,” “Yarnell remembers” and simply, “Heroes.”
Motorcycle escorts, honor guard members and firefighting trucks accompanied the 19 hearses along the route.
In both Phoenix and Prescott, the procession drove under giant American flags hoisted above the street with the raised ladders of two firefighter trucks. Bagpipes played as crowds were hushed silent by the enormity of the loss.
A red and white DC-3 airplane used for wildland firefighting released 19 long purple and pink ribbons overhead with each firefighter’s name on them; the ribbons drifted slowly down to the earth just before the hearses came to a stop outside the Yavapai County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Inside each hearse were the American flags that were draped over the men’s bodies at the site of their deaths in Yarnell. The flags have been with them since and will be until they’re buried. After that, the flags will be given to their families.
Family members of the firefighters watched the procession in private, away from the public and members of the media, as it passed by a massive makeshift memorial outside the fire station where the men were based in Prescott. The memorial includes hundreds of personal messages, pictures of the men, American flags, and variations on the number 19 — 19 water bottles, 19 shovels, 19 toy firetrucks surrounding a stuffed Teddy bear.
“When you think about their wives, their families and their kids, it just brings tears to your eyes,” said Lon Reiman, of Scottsdale.
Reiman, who carried two small American flags in Phoenix as he waited for the procession to begin, said he has several relatives who are firefighters and thought of them once he heard the news of the deaths.
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 on 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 but residents were expected to be allowed to return home today.
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.
A memorial service is set for Tuesday in Prescott, and then the men will be laid to rest at funerals throughout the rest of the week.
PHOTO: Hundreds of people line Montezuma Street Sunday, July 7, 2013 in downtown Prescott, Ariz. to pay respects as 19 hearses slowly roll by carrying the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed a week ago by an out-of-control blaze near Yarnell, Ariz. The nearly five-hour-long procession began near the state Capitol in Phoenix, went through the town where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed and ended in the mountain community of Prescott, where they lived and will be laid to rest this week. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)