PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) – Nineteen firefighters killed in a wildfire a week ago went home for the last time Sunday, their bodies traveling in individual white hearses in a somber caravan for 125 miles through Arizona cities and towns.
The nearly 5-hour-long procession began near the state Capitol in Phoenix, went through the town where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed and ended in the mountain community of Prescott, where they lived and will be laid to rest this week.
Thousands of people from across the state and beyond stood patiently in triple-digit temperatures in Phoenix, lined highways and overpasses along the route, and flooded the roads of downtown Prescott to pay their respect to the 19, whose deaths are the greatest loss of life for firefighters since 9/11.
They included fellow firefighters, the men’s family members, complete strangers and residents of Yarnell, the small town they died trying to save.
Those along the procession cried, they saluted, they held their hands over their hearts.
“It’s overwhelming to watch this slow procession of 19 hearses,” said a tearful Bill Morse, a Flagstaff fire captain who has been stationed in Prescott for a week helping Prescott fire deal with the tragedy. “The ceremonious air of it all. It’s heartbreaking.”
In downtown Prescott, a buslting and sometimes-rowdy area filled with bars and other businesses known as Whiskey Row grew eerily quiet as the hearses drove by, essentially stopping all activity for several minutes.
“You’ve got this tragic event that happened, you’ve got 19 hearses driving by,” said 26-year-old Jay Averitt of Prescott. “It puts reality in check.
“It was an honor to be able to watch it.”
Many along the route carried American flags and signs that read, “Courageous, selfless, fearless, beloved,” ‘’Yarnell remembers” and simply, “Heroes.”
Inside each hearse were the American flags that were draped over the men’s bodies at the site of their deaths in Yarnell. The flags have been with them since and will be until they’re buried. After that, the flags will be given to their families.
The firefighters were killed a week ago in the Yarnell Hill fire, sparked by lightning on June 28. Crews were closing in on full containment after the fire destroyed more than 100 homes in Yarnell and burned about 13 square miles. The town remained evacuated but residents were expected to be allowed to return home today.
A memorial service is set for Tuesday in Prescott, and then the men will be laid to rest at funerals throughout the rest of the week.