PRESCOTT VALLEY, Arizona (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, paid tribute on Tuesday to 19 Arizona firemen killed last week in a wildfire in a service marked by chiming bells, bagpipes and a prayer read by the crew’s lone survivor.
The June 30 deaths of all but one member of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting squad from Prescott, Arizona, marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire in 80 years.
The tragedy also stands as the highest number of American firefighters killed in a single incident since the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
In an emotional high point near the end of a 2 1/2-hour memorial service on Tuesday, the lone survivor of the highly trained Prescott crew, Brendan McDonough, took the stage to a standing ovation and recited “The Hotshots Prayer.”
The prayer concludes with the line: “For if this day on the line, I should answer death’s call, Lord, bless my hot shot crew, my family one and all.”
“Thank you, and I miss my brothers,” he said afterward, his voice choking with emotion.
It was the first public appearance of the tall, slender McDonough, who has kept a low profile and declined media interviews since he emerged unscathed from the fire in which his comrades perished.
The 19 men were overrun by flames fanned in their direction by gale-force winds as they battled a lightning-sparked blaze with hand tools outside the tiny hamlet of Yarnell, about 30 miles southwest of their central Arizona home base of Prescott.
McDonough had been acting as team lookout that afternoon and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew at the time.
Family, friends and fellow firefighters from departments and other hotshot crews around the nation packed a 6,000-seat indoor arena for Tuesday’s ceremony in the town of Prescott Valley. Thousands more watched the service on large video screens set up for an overflow crowd outside the hall.
The service opened with a color guard of firefighters in dress uniform filing into the auditorium in front of a stage lined with photos of the fallen crew members superimposed on American flags. Their well-worn gear, including boots, helmets and shovels, was also on display.
“Today we come together to honor and mourn 19 brave men. They were protectors,” Governor Jan Brewer said. “They were 19 heroes, gone at the turn of the wind.”
Taking the podium next, Biden declared, “There’s an old saying - all men were created equal, but then a few became firefighters. Thank God for you all.”
Other dignitaries in attendance included U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Arizona’s two U.S. senators - John McCain and Jeff Flake - and several U.S. Representatives from Arizona.
On two occasions, a silver ceremonial fire bell was chimed as the names of each of the fallen were called out - once as an honor guard presented family members with U.S. and Arizona flags and a brass-plated Pulaski tool used by wildland firefighters, and again when gold medals of honor were awarded to the men posthumously.
The service concluded with four U.S. Marine Corps fighter jets streaking overhead in formation, followed by a traditional drum and bagpipes corps playing “Amazing Grace” as they marched through the aisles of the arena.
The precise circumstances of the firefighters’ deaths in Arizona remain under investigation. Authorities have said the 19 specially trained firefighters, most in their 20s, apparently became trapped in seconds as a burst of high winds from an approaching thunderstorm drove flames into their position.
The team quickly deployed cocoon-like personal protective shelters in a last-ditch effort to take cover, but some of the men never even made it into the foil-coated capsules.
The so-called Yarnell Hill fire, one of dozens of wildland blazes that have raged across western states this summer, charred 8,400 acres after erupting on June 28. Scores of homes were destroyed. As of Tuesday, crews had carved containment lines around 90 percent of the fire’s perimeter.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott and Andrew Hay