PRESCOTT, Ariz. >> In the firefighting world, “hotshot” is the word given to those willing to risk their lives to go to the hottest part of a blaze. They are the best of the best, crews filled with adventure-seekers whose years of hard training ready them for the worst.
But in the full face of nature’s fury, all the training in the world isn’t always enough.
So it was Sunday for 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. These Hotshots were everything the word connotes: Daring and brave, a tightknit group brought together by a common bond of hard work and “arduous adventure,” reads the Prescott team’s web page.
“We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks,” says the site. “Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common.”
Above all, the crew’s members prided themselves on their problem-solving, teamwork and “ability to make decisions in a stressful environment.”
The men died Sunday evening when a wind-whipped wildfire overcame them on a mountainside north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“They were dedicated, hard-working people,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said. “I never heard them complain; they never complained to me at least. … They always seemed to be playing pranks on each other and a few on me.
“And I had a great deal of respect for them.”
At least two members of the crew had followed in their fathers’ firefighting footsteps.
Kevin Woyjeck, 21, used to accompany his dad, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, joining in sometimes on ride-alongs. The firehouse was like a second home to him, said Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency.
“He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand-in-hand,” Mora said Monday outside of a fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives. “He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I’ve seen at that age. He wanted to work very hard.”
Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California’s San Jacinto Valley, where father Michael was a former captain with the Moreno Valley Fire Department. An avid snowboarder, Chris MacKenzie joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department.
Longtime friend Dav Fulford-Brown told The Riverside Press-Enterprise that MacKenzie was set to receive a promotion soon. MacKenzie, Fulford-Brown said, “lived life to the fullest … and was fighting fire just like his dad.”
Another of the victims, Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The Press-Enterprise.
And Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott as much for his part-time job at Bucky O’Neill Guns as for his work as a Hotshot.
“I never heard a dirty word out of the guy,” said local William O’Hara. “He was the kind of guy who, if he dated your daughter, you’d be OK with it. He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman.”
Fourteen of those who died were in their 20s; the average age of the casualties was just 26. This is no surprise, given the rigors of the job.
As a condition of hire, each member is required to pass the U.S. Forest Service’s “Arduous Work Capacity Test” — which entails completing a 3-mile hike with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. The group also set for its members a fitness goal of a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 35 seconds; 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; 25 push-ups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups, according to the crew’s website.
“The nature of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people’s experiences,” the website said. “Environmental extremes, long hours, bad food, and steep, rugged terrain, demand that we train early and often by running and hiking, doing core exercises, yoga, and weight training.”
The group started in 2002 as a fuels mitigation crew — clearing brush to starve a fire. Within six years, they had made their transition into the “elite” hotshot community.
At Captain Crossfit, a warehouse filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings near the firehouse where the Hotshots worked, trainers Janine Pereira and Tony Burris talked about their day-to-day experiences with the crew in what was a home away from home for most of them.
The whole group grew beards and mustaches before the fire season started but had to shave their beards for safety.
“They were trying to get away with it, and finally someone was like, ‘No. You’ve got to shave that beard,'” Pereira said. “They were the strongest, the happiest, always smiling.”
Former Marine Travis Turbyfill, 27, whose nickname was “Turby,” would come in to train in the morning, then return in the afternoon with his two daughters and wife, Stephanie, a nurse, Pereira said.
“He’d wear these tight shorts … just to be goofy,” Pereira said. “He was in the Marine Corps and he was a Hotshot, so he could wear those and no one would bug him.”
At 43, crew superintendent Eric Marsh was by far the oldest member of the group. An avid mountain biker who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, Marsh became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Arizona State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of Marsh’s cousin.
In April 2012, Marsh let reporters from the ASU Cronkite News Service observe one of the crew’s training sessions. That day, they were playing out the “nightmare scenario” — surrounded by flames, with nothing but a thin, reflective shelter between them and incineration.
“If we’re not actually doing it, we’re thinking and planning about it,” Marsh said.
During that exercise, one of the new crew members “died.”
“It’s not uncommon to have a rookie die,” Marsh told the news service. “Fake die, of course.”
On Sunday, that scenario was all too real.
Here are stories andthe names of the other firefighters killed:
ANDREW ASHCRAFT: AN ATHLETIC, GO-GETTER
Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots, and remembered 29-year-old Andrew Ashcraft as a fitness-oriented student.
“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.”
Beneitone said athletic prowess was a must for the Hotshots. “That’s what it takes. You gotta be very physically fit, and you gotta like it, gotta like the hard work.”
Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was honored to be a member of the Hotshot crew, and “he just had a really sweet spirit about him,” Elise Smith, a Prescott, Ariz., resident, told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City.
Ashcraft left behind a wife, Juliann, and four children, the newspaper reported.
ROBERT CALDWELL: THE SMART ONE
Friends characterized Robert Caldwell, 23, as the smart man in the bunch.
“He was really smart, he had a good sense of humor,” said Chase Madrid, worked as a Hotshot for two years, but sat this year out.
“He was one of the smart guys in the crew who could get the weather, figure out the mathematics. It was just natural for him,” Madrid said.
It was Caldwell’s intelligence and know-how that got him appointed as a squad boss.
“Bob was a really good friend,” added Gina Martinez, who knew many of the Hotshots.
DUSTIN DEFORD: DRY SENSE OF HUMOR
Dustin DeFord, 24, tried out for the Hotshot crew in January 2012, telling friends on Twitter that he had passed the physical fitness test and asking for prayers as he moved on to the interview stage of the process.
He moved to Arizona from Montana after he was hired, and he worked to improve his skills on the climbing wall at a gym near the firehouse.
“He listened very well. He was very respectful,” said Tony Burris, a trainer at Captain Crossfit. “He kind of had a dry sense of humor.”
Another trainer, Janine Pereira, echoed that sentiment.
“You would say something to him, and he would respond with a crack, which was funny because he was so shy,” she said.
Soon after he interviewed for the Hotshots, DeFord signed up for the Spartan Race, a rugged, eight-mile challenge through the mud and around various obstacles in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix.
“I am being amazing,” he wrote on Twitter, in reference to the race.
Several months later, in June 2012, he tweeted: “First Fire of the season.”
SEAN MISNER: ‘TREMENDOUS HEART AND DESIRE’
Sean Misner, 26, leaves behind a wife who is seven months pregnant, said Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa Barbara County, where Misner graduated in 2005.
Misner played varsity football and also participated in the school’s sports medicine program where he wrapped sprained ankles and took care of sidelined athletes.
“He was a team player, a real helper,” Swanitz told The Associated Press on Monday.
In high school, Misner played several positions including wide receiver and defensive back. He was slim for a high school football player, but that didn’t stop him from tackling his opponents, recalled retired football coach Ken Gruendyke.
“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.”
WADE PARKER: ANOTHER SECOND GENERATION FIREFIGHTER
At 22, Wade Parker had just joined the Hotshots team. His father works for the nearby Chino Valley Fire Department, said retired Prescott Fire Department Capt. Jeff Knotek, who had known Wade since he was “just a little guy.”
The younger Parker had been very excited about being part of the Hotshot crew, Knotek said.
“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.”
“It’s just a shame to see this happen,” Knotek said.
JOHN PERCIN JR.: STRONG, BRAVE, AMAZING
He loved baseball and had an unforgettable laugh. In his aunt’s eyes, John Percin Jr. was, simply, “an amazing young man.”
“He was probably the strongest and bravest young man I have ever met in my life,” Donna Percin Pederson said in an interview with The Associated Press from her home in Portland, Ore.
John Percin Sr., declined to comment Monday. “It’s not a good time right now.”
Percin, 24, was a multisport high school athlete who graduated in 2007 from West Linn High School, southeast of Portland.
Geoff McEvers grew up playing baseball with Percin and remembered Percin as a fun-loving guy with an unforgettable laugh, The Oregonian newspaper reported.
McEvers said he learned about the Percin’s death through friends.
“It’s already tragic when you hear about those who died,” McEvers told the newspaper, “but when you find out it’s someone you know personally, it’s tough.”
ANTHONY ROSE: ‘BLOSSOMED’ AS FIREMAN
Anthony Rose, 23, 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.
Retired Crown King firefighter Greg Flores said Rose “just blossomed in the fire department. He did so well and helped so much in Crown King. We were all so very proud of him.”
Flores said the town was planning a fundraiser for Rose and hoped to also have a memorial to honor him.
“He was the kind of guy that his smile lit up the whole room and everyone would just rally around him,” he said. “He loved what he was doing, and that brings me some peace of heart.”
JESSE STEED: ONE OF CREW’S OLDER MEMBERS
Jesse Steed, 36, was one of the older members of the crew. He spent the last two years as the captain of the Hotshots.
Renton, Wash., police officer Cassidy Steed said his brother served in the Marine Corps before becoming a firefighter. He “always put his life on the line for people who he knew he would never meet.”
Cassidy Steed added that his brother “loved his job very much” and sacrificed time with his family and his own personal interests to pursue it.
CLAYTON WHITTED: HE’D ‘LIGHT IT UP’
Full of heart and determination, Clayton Whitted, 28, might not have been the biggest guy around, but he was among the hardest-working. His former Prescott High School coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was a “wonderful kid” who always had a big smile on his face. Whitted played for the football team as an offensive and defensive lineman.
“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.”
Beneitone said Whitted loved being a firefighter and was well-respected among his crew. He says he ran into Whitted about two months ago and they shook hands and hugged, and talked about the upcoming fire season.
“I told him to be careful,” Beneitone said.
— GrantMcKee, 21
— Joe Thurston, 32
— Garret Zuppiger, 27
Associated Press reporters Raquel Maria Dillon in Seal Beach, Calif., Sue Manning in Los Angeles and Hannah Dreier in Prescott contributed to this story.