PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — Nineteen Arizona firefighters who died when an out-of-control wildfire overran them were honored Tuesday by thousands of fellow firefighters and law enforcement officers, Gov. Jan Brewer and Vice President Joe Biden, who called them "men of uncommon valor" while thanking God that one member of the crew survived unhurt.
The memorial in Prescott Valley began with a choir singing "On Eagle's Wings" as Biden sang along from the sidelines. Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano looked on, as did Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, and other members of the state's congressional delegation.
"These men were some of the strongest, most disciplined, tenacious, physically fit men in the world," Biden said. "An elite unit in every sense of that phrase."
The 19 men — members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots — were overcome by smoke and fire June 30 while battling a blaze on a mountain above the tiny community of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
One member, 21-year-old Brendan McDonough, survived. He was serving as a lookout and wasn't in the immediate burn zone.
A stone-faced McDonough filed onto the stage at the end of the service and offered what's called "The Hot Shot's Prayer" after being hugged by other firefighters, Brewer and Biden. The prayer ends: "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," McDonough said after the prayer. "Thank you for supporting me."
Outside, each of the 19 firefighters was represented by a U.S. flag and a purple ribbon with his name. A bronze statue of a wildland firefighter with an ax in hand, stood in front as if guarding the arena.
Inside, each firefighter's name scrolled across an electronic board on two sides of the minor league hockey arena. Lined up in front of the stage were 19 sets of firefighting gear, complete with commemorative Pulaski tools similar to the ones the elite crew uses to dig lines around fires.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo gave the tools to the firefighters' families, along with flags that had been flown in their honor.
Alumni of the Granite Mountain Hotshots sat in the front rows, with about 1,000 members of the fallen firefighters' families surrounding them in seats on the floor of the arena. Those who first responded to the Yarnell Hill Fire sat in the rows behind them.
Darrell Willis, a Prescott Fire Department division chief, said he traveled with the crew a couple of years ago when they fought a fire in Colorado. On the way back, the unit stopped in Glenwood Springs and then climbed Storm King Mountain, where 14 firefighters died in 1994.
"We spent the entire sunny summer afternoon evaluating, studying, talking about what happened there 19 years ago," Willis said. "They were truly committed to never letting something like this every happen again. They were committed to returning to you after every assignment. But there was another plan."
Capt. Steve Brown of the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Fire District brought 17 others in his department of 85 uniformed firefighters. The job, he said, is driven first by the desire to help others and, secondly, by the excitement of not knowing where you're headed when that alarm sounds.
Those feelings — along with long work days often away from family — are shared among firefighters regardless of where they're stationed, he said.
"You can't judge a person till you've walked a mile in their shoes," he said. "If you do the job, you understand the job. That's where the camaraderie comes in."
Being part of the brotherhood doesn't come automatically when someone joins a firefighting crew, Steve Rushing of the Burbank, Calif., Fire Department said. Each has to earn respect and gain the trust of others through hard work and commitment, he said.
McDonough was assigned to give a "heads-up on the hillside" for the team on that fateful afternoon, said Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward. McDonough notified the crew of the rapidly changing weather that sent winds swirling erratically and caused the fire to cut off his team's escape route, then swiftly left his post for safety.
Ward said it's just been too tough on McDonough, but that "he did exactly what he was supposed to."
The highly specialized crew was part of a small community of Hotshots nationwide, just about 110 of the 20-person teams mostly stationed west of the Mississippi River.
Tuesday's memorial was the last of a handful of vigils for the men before the first of 19 funerals begin later in the week.
Ron Merrell, pastor of Heights Church, asked for comfort in an opening prayer, saying the past week has felt like "hell on Earth," leaving the families and firefighting community broken, confused, hurt and numb. He held up the firefighters as heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice not only in death but in life.
Two tolls of a bell rang out as each firefighter's name was called, and a member of his family stood up in the audience.
An honor guard that included alumni of the Granite Mountain Hotshots carried U.S. flags and Pulaski tools through the aisles, turning to face the family members who accepted the items on behalf of the firefighters. Some of the family members then hugged others next to them, as the men's pictures flashed on screens overhead and the choir began singing "You Raise Me Up."
Other photos showed the men playing with their children, with their family at Disneyland, riding bikes, carrying crew members on their backs, hanging out at camp and in close encounters with fire.
Biden offered the families some solace as he wrapped up his remarks.
"As unbelievable as it is to even fathom ... the day will come when the memory of your husband, your son, or your dad or your brother will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye," he said. "My prayer for all of you is that that day will come sooner than later, but I promise you as unbelievable as it is, it will come."