Like the cockpit recordings of a doomed airliner, the last words of dead men can be a haunting thing to read.
But Outside Magazine has provided today’s must-read, piecing together the final days of the 19 “hotshots” who died while saving high-priced homes from the Yarnell wildfire in Arizona earlier this summer.
Using radio transmissions, the magazine provides the most complete account yet of the disaster.
They deployed their shelters in ascending order of experience. The rookies and seasonal hotshots went first; then the squad bosses, making sure their men were in.
Before entering his shelter, Steed would have watched Robert, Clayton, and Travis climb into theirs. Eric went last. To protect their heads, they all pointed their feet toward the advancing flames. The grouping was so tight that the shelters touched. They followed orders.
No man tried to run or buck the command. Inside the orange glow of their shelters, they would have heard each other’s encouragements over the wind. They would each have had just a few moments to think. They’d wrestle their shelters as they beat the air like wind socks.
They’d clench their teeth, desperately pinning the flimsy aluminum tents to the ground as the flames passed over them and the heat became unimaginable.
Nineteen died and then it became a race with Facebook and Twitter to notify family members. Facebook and Twitter won.
The phones of his dead crewmates started ringing around 9 P.M. One cell phone rattled in the cup holder by the front seat, where Clayton had sat. Then it was the phones of the hotshots who’d sat in the back.
The calls were from girlfriends, friends, and family members. Maybe they caught wind of the tragedy on Facebook. Maybe they’d heard it second- or thirdhand from somebody else. It didn’t matter. The word was out. The Granite Mountain hotshots had deployed. The people were calling without any real hope that their message would ever be returned. They were calling to say goodbye.
The bodies were retrieved and taken into town.
Linda Caldwell, Robert’s mother and Grant McKee’s aunt, insisted she see her son’s and her nephew’s bodies before they were cremated. She was led into a room where they lay on gurneys with American flags draped over them.
Grant was on the right, still in the fetal position. Robert lay prone and plank-like on the left. For half an hour she felt their hands and feet through the stars and stripes. She touched Robert’s nose and ran her hands over his bald head.
Her husband, David, couldn’t bring himself to see his son’s burned body. It hurt too much. Instead, he gave Robert a gift he had meant to give him the last time he saw him alive. It was a first-bound edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. He placed it inside Robert’s coffin.
One hotshot who had left the immediate area, survived. The magazine provides the first detailed interview with him.
This afternoon, the Arizona Legislature is holding its first hearing on a bill to compensate the families for their loss.
A groundbreaking ceremony on Saturday was held to rebuild the homes that burned.