More than 1,000 people turned out Monday at a Prescott university gymnasium to honor the bravery and sacrifice of 19 hotshot firefighters who died Sunday battling Arizona's Yarnell Fire.
Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, 19 of whom were killed Sunday.
Those in the crowd rocked children in their arms, wiped away tears and applauded robustly after each set of remarks, often rising to their feet. Speakers quoted heavily from scripture and described the firefighters' deaths as Christ-like.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice and paused frequently. He said the firefighters' families, the Prescott Fire Department, the city of Prescott, the state of Arizona and the nation have all lost.
At the end of the ceremony, dozens of firefighters sporting hotshot shirts and uniforms from other jurisdictions marched to the front of the auditorium. They bowed their heads for a moment of silence in memory of their fallen comrades.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, investigators tried to figure out how the elite crew got caught when, apparently, the wind shifted suddenly and turned the fire on them. At the same time, other hotshot crews battled the wildfire, which by Monday afternoon had grown to 8,400 acres.
Condolence messages poured in to family, friends and the community of Prescott, including a message from President Barack Obama. Gov. Jan Brewer was in Yarnell to console the families and view the situation. She ordered state flags flown at half-staff through Wednesday and declared an emergency to free up state resources.
The White House said Obama had called Brewer to express his condolences and to offer federal help to the state in fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire and others currently burning.
The lightning-caused Yarnell Hill Fire continued out of control and with containment late Monday. Arizona State Forestry Division officials said a total of 400 firefighters were battling the fire, which was burning in rugged chaparral and grassland.
The fire on Sunday morning was at 800 acres, but triple-digit heat, extremely dry conditions and high winds combined to whip it to 2,000 acres in a very brief time, and that is when the firefighters were killed, officials said.
Officials reported that it destroyed 200 homes and other structures on Sunday, and hundreds were evacuated in Yarnell and the community of Peeples Valley.
The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew is one of 13 elite wildfire-fighting crews based in Arizona.
Such crews are usually the first to go in to try establishing fire lines. On Sunday, the Granite Mountain crew was positioning itself to do just that with the Yarnell Fire when the wind changed and turned the fast-moving fire on them, officials said.
All 19 had deployed their fire shelters, officials said. The devices are a combination tent and sleeping bag designed to protect them when fire sweeps over. A 20th firefighter was part of the crew but escaped injury because he was moving the crew's truck when the flames roared over the men, The Associated Press reported.
Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin told the AP that the crew and commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
Fire officials aren't sure how the firefighters became trapped. Experts said thunderstorms and a channeling effect caused by the topography of the mountains in the area can cause erratic, shifting winds during Arizona's monsoon.
The early part of the season, which began on June 15, is the most dangerous time for fires because the storms often produce plenty of lightning and wind, but not much rain.
Obama, in a message sent from Africa, where he is on a state visit, said, "We are heartbroken about what happened." He said his administration is prepared to help Arizona investigate.
The president said the deaths are a reminder that emergency personnel put their lives on the line every day. He predicted the tragedy will push for government leaders to analyze how they will continue to handle destructive, deadly fires.
In her statement, Brewer said, “This day will be eternally etched in Arizona’s memory. It will forever ring as one of our state’s darkest, most devastating days. It will forever remind us of the constant peril our firefighters selflessly face protecting us. We can never repay these 19 men and their families for their service and the ultimate sacrifice they made on our behalf."
Federal Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, said her "thoughts and prayers" go out to the firefighters' families.
Napolitano also said she is working closely with the Forest Service and the Interior Department to support state and local efforts to deal with the aftermath of the fire.
The bodies of the dead firefighters were taken to Phoenix Monday for autopsies, a caravan of white vans carrying themto the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office in downtown Phoenix shortly after noon.