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Arizona pauses to remember 19 fallen firefighters

Associated Press Updated: June 30, 2014 at 10:02 pm 0

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Residents wept and stood in salute as they remembered 19 firefighters Monday on the anniversary of their deaths, marked by a moment of silence and the chiming of 19 bells that echoed through a historic courthouse square in this Arizona community.

Hundreds fell silent as the bells rang, and they held hands over their hearts. Others hugged loved ones and bowed their heads as children stood in the crowd with the number "19" painted on their faces.

"One year ago today, our small community was forever changed. The unimaginable suddenly had to be imagined," Prescott Fire Department Battalion Chief Don Devendorf said, standing near a line of portraits of the fallen firefighters. "Yes, they died. They died honorably. They died as part of an honorable profession."

The tragedy marked the largest loss of life for U.S. firefighters since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the worst for a wildland fire crew in eight decades. The men, who made up the Granite Mountain Hotshots based in Prescott, died trying to protect the nearby town of Yarnell from an out-of-control brush fire that trapped them during erratic weather.

Devendorf recalled taking a recent vacation to Indiana, more than 1,700 miles away, and telling people there that he worked for the Prescott Fire Department. He said he got the same the reaction then that he almost always receives — instant recognition of the city known for the firefighters' actions a year ago.

The ceremony was one of several remembrances throughout Prescott, located about 100 miles north of Phoenix. As the nation's only municipal-run Hotshot crew, the firefighters had a visible presence in the community — whether it was clearing brush during fire season, shoveling snow or fighting fires. The city shut down early Monday to remember them.

Meanwhile, the men's families gathered for a private service at the Prescott cemetery where many of Hotshots are buried. Ten of the firefighters were laid to rest there, but each of the 19 has a plot with a bronze grave marker that will be etched with images taken from family photos. Surrounding the plots is a wall where mourners can sit and room for family to be buried alongside the firefighters.

About 600 people gathered at the cemetery, mostly to reflect on the character of the Hotshots and how they affected people's lives in Prescott. The service included honor guards from across Arizona, bagpipers and tributes from fire officials.

Businesses around Prescott also displayed banners in honor of the firefighters, and visitors and residents wore T-shirts bearing their unit's logo and "19" to mark the number of deaths.

Dozens of people gathered early Monday to hike a butte that was a favorite training spot of the firefighters. Others attended an exhibit at a Prescott hotel that showcases the men and their time on the fire lines.

Prescott resident Corie White made the morning hike and attended the courthouse ceremony, recalling that moment a year ago when she got a call from a friend that the firefighters had died.

"We've never been the same emotionally. You can't go a day without tears," she said. "You don't have to know these guys personally. They are part of our community."

Devendorf thanked residents for supporting the Prescott Fire Department a year ago when members were wracked with grief.

"Under normal circumstances, you call us when you need help," he said. But "you were the emergency responders for us. You propped us up. You gave us strength."

Joe Woyjeck, who lost his son Kevin in the fire, said another son planned to travel to Prescott to thank people in person for supporting the Hotshots. But the rest of his family wanted to keep things low-key at home in California.

Woyjeck and his wife were in Prescott recently and sat on a rock at the site where the Hotshots died. He said his family has gotten through the tragedy by focusing on something Kevin taught them when he was a boy: that people choose to be unhappy.

"I choose to be happy with this, and I think we're going to celebrate life that day with what we do," he said of the anniversary.

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