PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – On a day filled with speeches from dignitaries including Vice President Joe Biden the words of the lone survivor of a fire crew overrun by flames resonated deepest in an arena packed with firefighters from around the nation.
A stone-faced Brendan McDonough filed onto the stage at the end of the service and offered what’s called “The Hot Shot’s Prayer,” calmly reciting the words: “For if this day on the line I should answer death’s call, Lord, bless my hot-shot crew, my family, one and all.”
He concluded by telling the crowd: “Thank you, and I miss my brothers.”
McDonough spoke at a memorial for the 19 members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew who died June 30 when a wind-fueled, out-of-control fire overran them as they tried to protect a former gold-mining town from the inferno.
Biden called them “men of uncommon valor” while thanking God that one member of the crew survived unhurt.
“There’s an old saying: All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters,” Biden said. “Thank God for you all. Thank God for your willingness to take the risks you do.”
The event was marked by an outpouring of support from firefighters from across the country, who traveled to the Prescott area to honor their fallen brethren.
They talked about how firefighters are accustomed to answering the call of duty when the alarm sounds and sends them into harm’s way, whether it’s a fire in a forest, house or apartment. And they noted that the same can be said when a fellow firefighter dies.
“When you hear of a death, especially a group of firefighters, and there’s 19 that we’re here to mourn, there’s no question that at the drop of a hat you do what you can to go and support the fire service and their families,” said Capt. Steve Brown of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who brought 17 others in his department of 85 uniformed firefighters.
The memorial in Prescott Valley began with a choir singing “On Eagle’s Wings” as Biden sang along from the sidelines. Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano looked on, as did Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, and other members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Biden talked about the 1972 death of his wife and young daughter in a traffic crash, and how firefighters freed his sons from the mangled wreckage.
“I don’t have the privilege of knowing any of these heroes personally, but I know them. I know them because they saved the lives of my two sons,” Biden said. He also said firefighters rushed him to a hospital after he suffered an aneurysm in 1998, and he credited firefighters with saving his wife, Jill, after lightning once struck their home.
Gov. Jan Brewer praised people around the country for responding as she hoped they would – with candlelight vigils, financial contributions, prayers, and flowers and notes placed at makeshift memorials.
“Of course, our hearts are filled with profound sadness today, but they’re also filled with great pride,” she said. “How wonderful is it to know that Arizona was home to 19 men like those we honor today.”
Outside the minor league hockey arena, each of the 19 firefighters was represented by a U.S. flag and a purple ribbon with his name. A bronze statue of a wildland firefighter with an ax in hand, stood in front as if guarding the building.
Inside, each firefighter’s name scrolled across an electronic board on two sides of the arena. Lined up in front of the stage were 19 sets of firefighting gear, complete with commemorative Pulaski tool similar to the ones the elite crew uses to dig lines around fires.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo gave the tools to the firefighters’ families, along with flags that had been flown in their honor.