After 19 firefighters died Sunday battling a wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., condolences from U.S. President Barack Obama, Senators, many Americans, and people all over the world, praised their courage and mourned their loss.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew of 20 elite firefighters with the Prescott Fire Department, were called to battle a wildfire that spanned roughly 2,000 acres, according to local Prescott publication The Daily Courier.
A hotshot who was working apart from the others survived, the other 19 died. Art Morrison of the Arizona State Forestry Commission explained to CNN what happened: “In normal circumstances, when you’re digging fire lines, you make sure you have a good escape route, and you have a safety zone set up. Evidently, their safety zone wasn’t big enough, and the fire just overtook them. By the time the other firefighters got in, they didn’t survive.”
An investigation is underway. The names of the firefighters had not been released as of Monday morning. The town of Yarnell is home to about 700; about 200 homes have been destroyed.
It has been 80 years since so many firefighters died in a single U.S. wildfire, according to the Courier. In 1933, 25 firefighters died in the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles.
Prescott Fire Department Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told the Courier: “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet …Truly we’re going through a terrible crisis right now.”
Obama gave his condolences on Sunday during his trip in Africa, quoted by the Agence France-Presse (AFP): “They were heroes—highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.”
“The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need,” he said. “But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”
Senator John McCain wrote on his Facebook page: “Today, the families and loved ones of the 19 brave firefighters who lost their lives battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Central Arizona—as well as those still fighting the fire—are in the thoughts and prayers of all Americans. This devastating loss is a reminder of the grave risks our firefighters take every day on our behalf in Arizona and in communities across this nation. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is quoted by the Prescott E-News: “This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters. They were battling the Yarnell Fire, near Prescott, when the fast-moving blaze overtook their position.
“It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: fighting fires is dangerous work. The risk is well-known to the brave men and women who don their gear and do battle against forest and flame.
“When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all.”
On a Facebook page set up in memory of the firefighters, many Americans and people from all over the world expressed sympathy.
“The loss of these good people makes me feel ill. Can’t even imagine what their families are going through right now,” wrote Yvonne Luppens Erickson.
“I carried the Prescott Hotshots on my Fire bus several times in the past,” wrote Dianne Bartlett. “My heart is breaking today. I know that most of those I knew have already graduated to other things, but I wanted to say they were some of the nicest folks I carried. RIP I know you died doing something you loved. I pray for the families and friends of these heroes,” she added.
Mike Jerbi quotes a poem written by R. Hoffman, a Missouri firefighter, titled “Fallen”:
“Rest now my fallen brother
Lay soft your suffering back
Rest well and forever
Your memory shall not lack
Rest your tired hands
Wipe clean your weary brow
Rest with St. Florian
Your spirit now endowed
Rest here your breaking heart
We know you gave your all
Rest easy, you’ve done your part
You’ve answered your last call
Rest knowing that in God we sought
Oh Lord, watch over another who just fell
Rest assured your troubled thought
As we ring the final bell.”
Fawn Cortes wrote, “May you rest in perfect peace our protectors.”