PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — Firefighters William Benitez and Lou Larosa were fresh with the New York City Fire Department when terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 killed nearly 3,000 people, including hundreds of first responders.
The days ahead were tough as the two rookies and their colleagues attended dozens of funerals, while thousands of their fellow firefighters came from around the country to show support.
It's that camaraderie among firefighters that drew Benitez, Larosa and 10 others from their department, including the chief, to a massive memorial service in Arizona on Tuesday honoring 19 members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots. The elite crew died June 30 when a wind-fueled, out-of-control fire overran them as they tried to protect a former gold-mining town from the inferno.
"It's very important to have a big showing ... show the family there are people there for them," Benitez said Tuesday after the service that drew some 8,000 people to the minor league hockey arena.
"I always feel like the best part of it is when wives, siblings, get to see the amount of people showing up," Larosa added.
The day was filled with speeches from dignitaries including Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. The memorial in Prescott Valley began with a choir singing "On Eagle's Wings" as Biden sang the words alongside Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Sen. John McCain and other members of the state's congressional delegation.
But the words of the lone survivor of the Hotshot fire crew resonated deepest in the packed arena. Brendan McDonough, who was serving as the lookout for his 19 teammates on that fateful afternoon, notified the crew of the rapidly changing weather that sent winds swirling and caused the blaze to cut off his firefighters' escape route, then swiftly left his post for safety.
Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward said it's been tough on McDonough but that "he did exactly what he was supposed to."
McDonough walked onto the stage and offered what's called "The Hot Shot's Prayer," calmly reciting the words: "For if this day on the line I should answer death's call, Lord, bless my Hotshot crew, my family, one and all."
He concluded by telling the crowd: "Thank you. And I miss my brothers."
Biden called them "men of uncommon valor."
"There's an old saying: All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters," the vice president said. "Thank God for you all. Thank God for your willingness to take the risks you do."
Many of the firefighters from across the country talked about the brotherhood — and sisterhood — of the profession, a bond even among strangers in a job fraught with danger and adrenaline.
"When you hear of a death, especially a group of firefighters, and there's 19 that we're here to mourn, there's no question that at the drop of a hat you do what you can to go and support the fire service and their families," said Capt. Steve Brown of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Protection District, who brought 17 others in his department from California.
Brewer praised people for responding as she hoped they would — with candlelight vigils, financial contributions, prayers, and flowers and notes placed at makeshift memorials.
"Of course our hearts are filled with profound sadness today, but they're also filled with great pride," Brewer said. "How wonderful is it to know that Arizona was home to 19 men like those we honor today."
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.
Outside the arena, where several thousand people who couldn't fit inside watched the service on jumbo screens, a bronze statue of a firefighter stood with an ax in hand. A granite marker read, "In honor and recognition of all wildland firefighters across this great nation. Duty — Respect — Integrity."
The highly specialized Granite Mountain crew was part of a small community of Hotshots nationwide. There are about 110 of the 20-person teams, mostly stationed west of the Mississippi River.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo gave firefighting tools to the deceased men's families, along with flags that had been flown in their honor.
Family members and Hotshot crews also visited a new public overlook Tuesday near where the men were killed. Drivers who stop at the site along Highway 89 near Yarnell will be able to see a flagpole in the distance that marks the site where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped on June 30. The 15-mile stretch of highway reopened Wednesday morning.
The fire is 90 percent contained, but firefighting activity has essentially ended except for making sure that smoldering embers don't re-ignite homes in Yarnell.
Tuesday's memorial was the last of a handful of vigils for the men before the first of 19 funerals.
Biden, whose two sons were saved by firefighters after an accident that killed his wife and daughter, 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."
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed to this report from Phoenix.