PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Trapped by a wildfire that exploded tenfold in a matter of hours, a crack team of firefighting “Hotshots” broke out their portable emergency shelters and rushed to climb into the foil-lined, heat-resistant bags before the flames swept over them.
By the time the blaze had passed, 19 men lay dead in the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based at Prescott, authorities said yesterday as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain in the town of Yarnell. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.
The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildfire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles, which killed 29. The biggest loss of firefighters in U.S. history was 343, killed in the 9/11 attack on New York.
In 1994, the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by an explosion of flames.
Sunday’s deaths plunged the two small towns into mourning as the wildfire continued to threaten one of them, Yarnell. Arizona’s governor called it “as dark a day as I can remember” and ordered flags flown at half-staff. In a heartbreaking sight, a line of white vans carried the bodies to Phoenix for autopsies.
“I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today,” said Gov. Jan Brewer, her voice catching several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School in the town of 40,000.
The lightning-sparked fire — which spread to 13 square miles by yesterday morning — destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department said.