They were fathers and expectant fathers. High school football players and former Marines. Smoke-eaters’ sons and first-generation firefighters.
What bound together the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – so named because they were willing to go to the hottest part of a blaze – was a “love of hard work and arduous adventure,” and a willingness to risk their lives to protect others. And now, 19 families share a bond of grief.
All but one of the Prescott-based crew’s 20 members died Sunday when a wind-whipped wildfire overran them on a mountainside northwest of Phoenix, in what was the deadliest single day for fire crews since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks,” the group’s website says. “Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common.”
“It’s a younger man’s game,” said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, and the statistics bear him out. Of those who died, 14 were in their 20s; their average age was just 26. At least three members of the crew were following in their fathers’ firefighting footsteps.
Kevin Woyjeck, 21, used to accompany his dad, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, sometimes going on ride-alongs. The firehouse was like a second home to him, said Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency.
“He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand-in-hand,” Mora said Monday outside a fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives. “He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I’ve seen at that age. He wanted to work very hard.”
Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California’s San Jacinto Valley, where father Michael was a former captain with the Moreno Valley Fire Department. An avid snowboarder, MacKenzie joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department.
Dustin DeFord, 24, was a Baptist preacher’s son, but it was firefighting that captured his imagination. At 18, he volunteered for the Carter County Rural Fire Department like his father did in his hometown of Ekalaka, Mont. Almost everyone knew DeFord in the small town where he grew up. “He was one of the good ones who ever walked on this earth,” Carter County Sheriff Neil Kittelmann told the local paper.
Many Went to the Same High School
Many of those killed were graduates of Prescott High. One of them was 28-year-old Clayton Whitted, who as a firefighter would work out on the same campus where he played football for the Prescott Badgers from 2000 to 2004. “He wasn’t a big kid, and many times in the game, he was overpowered by big men, and he still got after it,” said the school’s football coach, Lou Beneitone. “He knew, ‘This man in front of me is a lot bigger and stronger than me,’ but he’d try it, and he’d smile trying it.”
The group started in 2002 as a fuels mitigation crew – clearing brush to starve a fire. Within six years, they had made their transition into the “elite” Hotshot community.
Former Marine Travis Turbyfill, 27, whose nickname was “Turby,” would come in to train in the morning, then return in the afternoon with his two daughters and wife, Stephanie, a nurse, Pereira said.
“He’d wear these tight shorts … just to be goofy,” Pereira said. “He was in the Marine Corps and he was a Hotshot, so he could wear those and no one would bug him.”
Andrew Ashcraft, 29, another Prescott High graduate, would bring his four children to the Captain Crossfit daycare, Pereira said.”He’d come in in the early morning and do a workout, and then, to support his wife, he’d do one again,” she said. “He’d carry her around sometimes and give her a kiss in front of all his guys.”
Just Starting Families
Other members of the group were just beginning families.
Sean Misner, 26, leaves behind a wife who is seven months pregnant, said Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa Barbara County, where Misner graduated in 2005.
Marine Corps veteran Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told the Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside.
At 43, crew superintendent Eric Marsh was by far the oldest member of the group. An avid mountain biker who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, Marsh became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Arizona State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of Marsh’s cousin.
In April 2012, Marsh let reporters from the ASU Cronkite News Service observe one of the crew’s training sessions. That day, they were playing out the “nightmare scenario” – surrounded by flames, with nothing but a thin, reflective shelter between them and incineration.
“If we’re not actually doing it, we’re thinking and planning about it,” Marsh said.
During that exercise, one of the new crew members “died.” “It’s not uncommon to have a rookie die,” Marsh told the news service. “Fake die, of course.”
‘They Gave Their Lives for Their Friends’
On Monday, more than 1,000 people crowded into the bleachers and spilled onto the gymnasium floor at the Prescott campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The crowd stood for more than a minute as firefighters in uniform walked in.
U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon said the Hotshots had made the ultimate sacrifice: “They gave their lives for their friends.”
“It’s times like today that define who we are,” he said.
In a shaking voice, Fire Chief Fraijo described a picnic he threw last month for his new recruits and their families. Earlier Monday, he met with those same families in another auditorium and gave them the tragic news.
“Those families lost,” he said. “The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost.”