Firefighters came from every corner of the United States, some even from other countries, to join an estimated 30,000 people that arrived in Prescott Valley on Tuesday to pay an emotional tribute to the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.
Local, state and national dignitaries were among the 6,000 people who filled Tim's Toyota Center for the Salute to Heroes ceremony memorializing the 19 firefighters and to provide support for their families and friends.
Among the dignitaries were Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Arizona's Congressional delegation, including Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake.
None, however, had the type of relationship with the 19 firefighters than those who worked directly with and beside them.
"Each one was my adopted son," said Darrell Willis, division chief of the Prescott Fire Department and the "father" of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who talked of the personal relationship he had with each firefighter.
Willis said that his attire for the memorial was not in the traditional dress uniform of firefighters, but that was by design.
"I'm dressed in a nontraditional formal uniform. It's the way they would have wanted me to, with dirt on my boots, and in the same uniform I was wearing the night they perished on June 30."
Willis talked about the fervor with which the firefighters approached their job, including a stop in Glenwood Springs and Storm King Mountain where 14 firefighters died fighting the Canyon Fire in 1994.
"We evaluated, talked and studied what happened 19 years ago, and they were committed to not letting something like this happen again."
Willis said he was proud of their professionalism.
"Everything they did was done with excellence," he said. "I have full confidence that every action they took was well thought out with safety as a priority. I would have followed them blindfolded into the place where they were at.
"This crew was the real deal. In my words, right and tight," he said.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said, "There is a common thread that everyone in uniform has. There is a bond attached to that thread. The thread is always the threat that something could go wrong, the threat that you could be injured or, God forbid, killed in line of duty."
Fraijo said the Hotshots knew and accepted that risk without complaining.
"They did a job with excellence, and I saw excellence that could be written about but can't be explained. "Wildland firefighting is a tough job. It's difficult for me to understand," said Fraijo who came to Prescott after spending time as a Phoenix firefighter.
He said he couldn't really understand walking miles with 40 to 50 pounds of gear, sleeping on ground and battling firestorms.
But he said these 19 dedicated men served with total commitment.
"They looked forward to facing the mouth of the dragon with a smile," Fraijo said.
"If I could fulfill my fondest wish it would be that my tears wash away the pain we all feel," Fraijo said. "You will be missed but never ever forgotten."
Biden arrived at Luke Air Force Base on Tuesday morning and traveled to Prescott Valley, where he spoke during the ceremony. The Bidens left Luke AFB for Prescott Valley in a motorcade accompanied by Arizona Department of Public Safety officers.
He spoke about the pain and loss the deaths leave families and friends, a perspective he knows all too well after experiencing the death of his first wife and daughter when their vehicle was broadsided by a tractor-trailer rig.
He also spoke of that experience allowing him to "know" the 19 Granite Mountain Firefighters, even though he never met one of them. He knows them because they are firefighters.
"I didn't have the privilege of knowing any of them personally," he said. "But I know them - confident committed trustworthy, passionate. I know them because the saved the life of my two sons," who also were in the vehicles with his wife and daughter, after firefighters spent 90 minutes using the jaws of life to cut them from the wreckage.
He said he knew them because they saved his life in a snowstorm when he had to be rushed to a hospital with cranial aneurysm. They also save his home when it was struck by lightning.
Biden called the Hotshots men of "uncommon valor" and praised their discipline, tenacity and physical fitness. "Firefighting is not what they did. It was who they were," Biden said.
The most emotional moment of the day came when lone survivor Brendan McDonough was introduced to recite the "Hotshots Prayer." McDonough, just 21 years old, was greeted by a long standing ovation and handshake and hugs from the dignitaries.
"Thank you, and I miss my brothers. Thank you for supporting me," an obviously emotional McDonough said. McDonough served as the group's lookout for the Hotshots and was in the process of moving his truck to safer ground when his fellow Hotshots were overcome by the flames.
"Our hearts are filled with profound sadness today, but also filled with great pride," Brewer told the crowd. "How wonderful it is to know Arizona was home to 19 men like those we honor today."
Brewer said she was encouraged by the support shown by the communities of Yarnell, Prescott and Peeples Valley and from across the state.
"This is the Arizona I know. The hope I have in my heart is fortified" by the show of support and the ability of the state to come tighter. She expressed her thanks to President Barack Obama "for his kind words in the wake of this tragedy."
She said she has renewed hope for the state.
"It is hope borne of fire. To the Yarnell 19, we'll never forget your sacrifice and that of your families. Our duty now is to help and protect your families."
The beginning of the ceremony was delayed slightly to accommodate the large crowd, including family members, and because of the number of firefighters dressed in their Class A uniforms that bear a number of medals.
"Everybody needs to go through metal detectors," said Flagstaff Fire Capt. Bill Morse. "Thousands of firefighters dressed in all their bling, their Class A uniforms, we carry a lot of metal."
Morse estimated the delay at "maybe 15 minutes," but that organizers of the memorial wanted to ensure all people who were supposed to be inside the center got in before the ceremony starts.
An estimated 1,000 firefighters from all 50 states, Canada and other countries were in attendance.
In addition, the International Association of Firefighters paid the expenses for thousands of family members from outside Arizona to attend.
The vice president is scheduled to speak at about 12:15 p.m., will return to Luke AFB and fly home, according to the White House.
The Bidens will not be available to the media during the visit, the White House said.
Gov. Jan Brewer is also scheduled to speak during the memorial.
General manager Gary Spiker is the man in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly.
Spiker has worked long hours preparing the arena for the event, first by having the 19 names of those killed scrolling in the marquee.
"Those go 24 hours a day, the name of the Hotshot group. We leave that on all the time. These parents, what they're going through, I can't imagine. So we'll just get it done. We'll do it for them," he continued.
The arena holds about 6,000 people, with 2,000 chairs on the floor of the arena reserved exclusively for family and relatives of the victims. The other 4,000 seats line the arena were reserved for firefighters arriving from around the country.
The service was exclusively for family, friends and firefighters, but Spiker said thousands are going to pack the area around the arena.
"Some people are estimating 10,000. I'm more estimating 15,000 to 20,000 that are going to be outside. Outside we have some very professional LED screens, they're 20-by-35 feet," he explained.
Other organizers estimated Tuesday's crowed at 30,000 in the center's parking lot.
The goal is create a powerful service - a way for the families and community to cope with such a tragic loss.
"It's going to hopefully help them come to grips and get closure," Spiker said.
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