PRESCOTT, AZ - Hundreds of people wept and stood in salute as they remembered 19 fallen firefighters Monday on the anniversary of their deaths with a moment of silence and the chiming of 19 bells that echoed through a historic courthouse square in this Arizona community.
The crowd fell silent as the bells rang, and they held hands over their hearts.
"One year ago today, our small community was forever changed. The unimaginable suddenly had to be imagined," Prescott Fire Department Battalion Chief Don Devendorf told the crowd. "Yes, they died. They died honorably. They died as part of an honorable profession."
The tragedy marked the largest loss of life for U.S. firefighters since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the worst for a wildland fire crew in eight decades. The men, who made up the Granite Mountain Hotshots based in Prescott, died trying to protect the nearby town of Yarnell from an out-of-control brush fire that trapped them during erratic weather.
Devendorf recalled taking a recent vacation to Indiana, more than 1,700 miles away, and telling people there that he worked for the Prescott Fire Department. He said he got the same the reaction then that he almost always receives -- instant recognition of the city known for the actions of the firefighters a year ago.
The ceremony was one of several remembrances throughout Prescott, located about 100 miles north of Phoenix. The city, which had the country's only municipal Hotshot crew, shut down early Monday for the ceremony.
Businesses around Prescott displayed banners in honor of the firefighters, and visitors and residents wore T-shirts bearing their unit's logo and "19" to mark the number of deaths. The firefighters died June 30, 2013, when they were overrun by flames while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in a brush-choked canyon.
Dozens of people also gathered early Monday to hike a butte that was a favorite training spot of the firefighters. Visitors and residents attended an exhibit at a Prescott hotel that showcases the men and their time on the fire lines.
Terri Brahm was walking through the exhibit with her uncle, Ron Markus, both wearing T-shirts they bought Sunday to wear in remembrance of the Hotshots.
"Everybody still talks about it, every day," she said. "Something always reminds us."
Since the deaths, Brahm said her son has become inspired to become a Hotshot himself.
Meanwhile, the men's families planned to gather Monday for a private service at the Prescott cemetery where many of Hotshots are buried.
Ten of the firefighters were laid to rest there, but each of the 19 has a plot with a bronze grave marker that will be etched with images taken from family photos. Surrounding the plots is a wall where mourners can sit and room for family members to be buried alongside the firefighters.
"It's remarkable that they indeed did keep all 19 of them together," said Gayemarie Ekker, whose son Joe Thurston was killed. "That as families, we do have that place to go and reflect."
Joe Woyjeck said his son and his son's girlfriend planned to travel to Prescott to thank people in person for supporting the Hotshots. But the rest of his family will keep things low-key at home in California in remembering his son, Kevin, he said.
Woyjeck and his wife were in Prescott recently and sat on a rock at the site where the Hotshots died. He said his family has gotten through the tragedy by focusing on something Kevin taught them when he was a boy: that people choose to be unhappy.
"I choose to be happy with this, and I think we're going to celebrate life that day with what we do," he said of the anniversary.
Danny Parker, who lost his son, Wade, said that aside from going to the cemetery, the family will keep the day's events to a "dull roar."
Katie Cornelius has gathered stories of the brotherhood formed by Hotshots who spend months together battling the country's most severe wildfires, of the raucousness at camp that included contests on who could eat the most tubs of gravy. Those stories, along with photos of the men, will be displayed on sections of chain-link fence inside the Hotel St. Michael.
"When you start to understand what that life was, you can say, `What a crazy, awesome life," she said.
A play produced by local musician, author and actor Ered Matthew was inspired by the stories behind items left on a memorial fence. Matthew said he was struck by a T-shirt from Albuquerque, New Mexico, that read, "Requirements. No egos. No badges. No resume builders. Willing hearts."
The fence allowed a framework for people to express their emotions by leaving books they read to their children, fire hats, roses and stuffed animals, he said.
"Once you know the story of why they left
it, people will realize other people share their grief in a similar way," he said.