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Arizona Hotshots, crew of 19 killed in wildfire, remembered fondly

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 2nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When a terrible tragedy strikes, survivors try to place a face, story and life behind a name listed online or in the newspaper. When all 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a wildfire north of Phoenix, one of the worst U.S. fire fatalities on record, friends and family came forward to remember the brave men who died in the line of duty.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A high school physical education teacher recalled 29-year-old firefighter Andrew Ashcraft as especially athletically inclined. "He had some athletic ability in him, and he was a go-getter, too. You could pretty much see, from young freshman all the way, he was going to be physically active." He's survived by his wife and four children.

Twenty-three-year-old Robert Caldwell was recalled as the smart man in the bunch. "He was really smart. He had a good sense of humor," a coworker said.

His cousin, Grant McKee, also was one of the Hotshots killed Sunday. "Both of these boys were only interested in having a family life. Robert was newly married, and Grant was engaged. They just wanted the house and the dog," their aunt said.

Thirty-one-year-old Travis Carter was known as the strongest one on the crew - but also the most humble. "No one could beat him," trainer Janine Pereira said. "But the thing about him was he would never brag about it. He would just kill everyone and then go and start helping someone else finish."

A firefighter since he turned 18, 24-year-old Dustin DeFord started as a volunteer in tiny Ekalaka, Montana. His father, the Rev. Steve DeFord, said the outpouring of support there has been unbelievable. "We've got enough food in the house to last a year," he said.

An avid snowboarder, 30-year-old Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California's San Jacinto Valley, where he was a 2001 graduate of Hemet High School and a former member of the town's fire department. He had followed his father into firefighting.

In addition, 43-year-old Eric Marsh was an avid mountain biker who grew up in Ashe County, N.C., but became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Arizona State University. Marsh was superintendent of the Hotshot crew and the oldest of the 19 who died.

Especially troubling are the firefighters who left unfinished business among the living. Twenty-six-year old Sean Misner left behind a wife who is seven months pregnant.

"He played with tremendous heart and desire," Gruendyke said. "He wasn't the biggest or fastest guy on the team, but he played with great emotion and intensity."

Twenty-eight-year-old Scott Norris was known around Prescott through his part-time job at Bucky O'Neill Guns. "He was the kind of guy who if he dated your daughter, you'd be OK with it," a former customer recalled. "He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman."

At 22, Wade Parker had just joined the Hotshots team. Retired Prescott Fire Department Capt. Jeff Knotek, who had known Wade since he was "just a little guy."

"He was another guy who wanted to be a second generation firefighter," Knotek said. "Big, athletic kid who loved it, aggressive, assertive and in great shape."

In his aunt's eyes, 24-year-old John Percin Jr. was, simply, an "amazing young man." Percin was a multisport high school athlete who graduated in 2007 from West Linn High School, southeast of Portland.

Twenty-three-year-old Anthony Rose was one of the youngest victims. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked as a firefighter in nearby Crown King before moving on to become a Hotshot.

Jesse Steed's former colleagues remember him as a joker. "He was a character. If you look at all the old photos of him, he was doing things to make people laugh," Cooper Carr says, who worked with the 36-year-old Steed in the Hotshots from 2001 to 2003.

"He was good at impressions, and he sang songs; he was just great for morale. He'd just talk in a funny voice and have us all in stitches," Carr said. "And he was strong as an ox."

Back home in Cedar City, Utah, 32-year-old Joe Thurston, 32, used to go to an area reservoir with friends and promptly show how fearless he could be.

"He was definitely one of the daredevil types," longtime friend Scott Goodrich told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We went to Quail (Creek) Reservoir, and we'd be finding 40- to 50-foot cliffs that people would be scared to jump off. He would just show up and be front-flipping off of them." Thurston brought this bold streak to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Known as "Turby" among crew members, 27-year-old Travis Turbyfill got a full-time position with the Hotshots when another member's girlfriend asked him to quit. A trainer said he enjoyed watching Turby with his two daughters.

Growing up in Hemet, California, 25-year-old Billy Warneke was expecting their first child in December. He was a four-year Marine Corps veteran who served a tour in Iraq and had joined the hotshot crew in April, buying a property in Prescott, near where his sister lived, according to newspaper reports.

Full of heart and determination, 28-year-old Clayton Whitted might not have been the biggest guy around, but he was among the hardest-working. His former Prescott High School coach said Whitted was a "wonderful kid" who always had a big smile on his face.

"He was a smart young man with a great personality, just a wonderful personality," said Beneitone. "When he walked into a room, he could really light it up."

For 21-year-old Kevin Woyjeck, 21, the fire station was a second home. His father, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

With his flaming red beard, 27-year-old Garret Zuppiger, loved to be funny, a trainer at a gym where many of the Hotshots worked out recalled. We both had a red beard and so we would always admire each other's beards," he said. "We also had a few conversations about beer."

Zuppiger's humor was evident on his blog, where he wrote about his grandmother's one-eyed Chihuahua, his "best hair day ever" and a hike with his mother on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. "Garret Zuppiger turns 25!" he wrote in a post several years ago. "Everyday is like a gift!!"

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