Prescott, Arizona and the nation paid tribute to 19 fallen wildland firefighters Tuesday in a moving ceremony marked by tears, emotional eulogies and expressions of support for their families.
"All men are created equal, but then a few became firefighters," eulogized Vice President Joe Biden, who said that while he did not know of any of the Prescott firefighters, he knew them through his life's experiences.
Gov. Jan Brewer promised never to forget them or their families, calling them "19 heroes, gone at the turn of the wind."
The 19 were killed June 30 in a wildfire that ignited from a lightning strike in grass and chaparral south of Prescott near Yarnell. They were working to build a fireline when the wind suddenly shifting, turning the fire on them. They deployed shields, but the fire swept over them, killing all 19.
The service was filled with prayers and words of courage and gratitude to the hotshots' families. The firefighters' photos were lined up onstage, along with the uniforms they wore the night they were killed.
Each of the families was presented with the International Association of Firefighters medal of honor.
The Greater Arizona Congress Choir opened the service with the hymn "On Eagle's Wings," followed by Ron Merrell, teaching pastor of Prescott's Heights Church. The pastor described the tragedy as "a bit of hell on earth."
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo and Division Chief Darrell Willis were among the first to speak.
Willis wore the same boots and clothing, with "Yarnell dirt," he wore the night the firefighters perished. During his speech, Willis thanked the hotshots for their loyalty and team work.
"There is always threat of something going wrong," Fraijo said to families and friends of the 19. "The risk or possibly being injured, being killed in the line of duty. It is a...fact that we all accept. The hotshots knew this, and accepted the risk. (They) never complained, and did their job with excellence...absolute dedication."
Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall also spoke, and then introduced Gov. Jan Brewer.
Brewer said Arizona has responded to the tragedy exactly as she expected: with prayers, generous financial contributions to the families, flowers and notes placed at memorials. She thanked President Barack Obama for his kind words, and for offering assistance from the federal government the state may need dealing with the aftermaths of the Yarnell blaze.
"Arizona and America are united in prayer," Brewer said. "To the Yarnell 19: We will never forget your sacrifices or your families."
The vice president remembered the loss of his first wife and daughter. He told the families he knows how the terrible news must have felt, because he had once received such news, and dealt with the unexpected death of loved ones.
"I didn't have the privilege of knowing them (hotshots) personally," Biden said. "But I know them. A cliff jumper, a rock climber, an Iraq veteran. They were firefighters. I know them because they saved the lives of my two sons. You saved my home and wife, Jill, when lightning struck my home...Thank God for your willingness to take the risks you do. We owe you. We owe your families. All men are created equal, but then a few became firefighters."
Near the end of the service, surviving hotshot Brendan McDonough spoke, holding back tears. He thanked everyone for their support, and said he will miss his crew members.
The 19 firefighters were all with the Prescott Fire Department. They were: Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28.
Also, Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27. Condolence messages poured in to family, friends and the community of Prescott, including a message from President Barack Obama.
Nearly 130 homes and structures were destroyed by the wildfire that burned 8,400 acres.
A map of the tragedy revealed that the wildfire curled around the hotshots' location, leaving them trapped and unable to reach a nearby safety zone. A full investigation of the tragedy is being conducted by Jim Karels, Florida's state forester and Mike Dudley of the U.S. Forest Service, among other organizations.
An estimated 700 evacuees of the area were allowed to return Monday morning.
The American Red Cross will use a Yarnell church as the site for a new facility to help residents returning to their community.
According to the Red Cross, the recovery center will provide meals, snacks and water along with ice, cleaning supplies and other essentials. Also, caseworkers, nurses and mental health volunteers will be available to aid the returning residents.
Residents of the nearby community of Peeples Valley returned home on Thursday.