PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Brendan McDonough was emotionally crushed when his supervisor on a Hotshot firefighting crew radioed in to say a wildfire ripping through the Arizona wilderness had forced them into emergency shelters — a last resort for firefighters.
His emotions plunged further as he heard the ringing phones that some of his fellow 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots had left in one of the unit’s vehicles. Separated from his crew by his job as a lookout, he knew what their wives, children and families didn’t: All 19 had died.
“Coming home, that was the worst feeling ever,” McDonough told ABC News in an interview aired Wednesday. “Knowing that these families would see me, but not anyone else off that crew. No one. I was the only person they’re going to see.”
The firefighters’ deaths on June 30 near Yarnell, Ariz., came after the wind shifted, cutting off their escape route. It was the largest loss of life for firefighters in a single event since the Sept. 11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001 in New York.
McDonough told the Daily Courier that he has asked himself “a million times” why he was spared. But he said he tries not to dwell on what happened that day.
“That’s not going to help anyone,” including his 2-year-old daughter, he said. “That’s not going to remember my brothers the right way.”
An investigation into the firefighters’ deaths is underway, but officials have said the crew moving on foot in rugged terrain was aware as it changed positions that the direction of the wind pushing the fire was shifting.
Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, was the one who called in to a fire manager on the radio, saying the 19 men were deploying their emergency shelters. That’s the last McDonough or anyone heard from them.
When fire managers couldn’t contact the crew, a state police paramedic was dropped off by a helicopter and hiked to the crew’s deployment site. The paramedic confirmed the deaths and reported them by radio.
Despite losing the men he considers his brothers, McDonough is certain he wants to live out the dream of firefighting that he’s had since he was 13. The 21-year-old was hired as a seasonal employee with the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2011 after completing wildland firefighting classes.
“I wouldn’t have traded the years I spent with those men for anything in this world,” he told the Courier. “They made me the man and father I am today. How successful I am physically, emotionally, spiritually — I owe it to them.”
What he’s not so sure about is whether he’ll join a Hotshot crew for next year’s fire season.
“I love fighting wildland fires but I loved fighting them with the people I did,” he told the Courier. “That’s going to be hard to fill.”
Prescott city officials met Tuesday night to affirm their commitment to rebuilding the only Hotshot crew in the country that was tied to a municipal fire department.
Prescott Fire Department Chief Dan Fraijo asked the City Council to make a firm decision within a couple of weeks as to how the crew would be structured so that the department can begin training and hiring for it.
“The sooner the decision is made, the more time we have to put a team together,” he said.