Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ariz. Hotshots included jokesters, fathers-to-be


PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, were killed Sunday when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s. Here are the stories of those who died:



Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots, and remembered Andrew Ashcraft, 29, 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,” Prescott resident Elise Smith told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City.

Ashcraft left behind a wife, Juliann, and four children, the newspaper reported.



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, who 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.

His cousin, Grant McKee, also was one of the Hotshots killed Sunday.

“Robert was a gentle giant — he was man of few words,” said his aunt, Laurie McKee.

He had just gotten married in November, and had a 5-year-old stepson.

“Both of these boys were only interested in having a family life. Robert was newly married, and Grant was engaged. They just wanted the house and the dog,” McKee said.

Mary Hoffmann was grandmother to both boys.

“To have two grandsons gone, it’s devastation,” she said.



At Captain Crossfit, a gym near the firehouse where the Hotshots were stationed, Travis Carter was known as the strongest one on the crew — but also the most humble.

“No one could beat him,” trainer Janine Pereira said. “But the thing about him was he would never brag about it. He would just kill everyone and then go and start helping someone else finish.”

Carter, 31, was famous for once holding a plank for 45 minutes, and he was notorious for making up brutal workouts.

The crew recently did a 5-mile run during wilderness training. He then made them go to Captain Crossfit in the afternoon for another hard workout.

“The other guys who came in here always said that even though he was in charge, he was always the first one at the fire, the first one in action,” Pereira said.



Dustin DeFord, 24, had been a firefighter since he turned 18 and started as a volunteer in tiny Ekalaka, Mont. His father, the Rev. Steve DeFord, said the outpouring of support there has been unbelievable.

“We’ve got enough food in the house to last a year,” he said.

DeFord graduated from Cornerstone Bible Institute in Hot Springs, S.D., three years ago, his father said, and always believed God was his guiding force.

On his Facebook page last year, he talked about wanting to find work in western Montana, but God instead moved him to Arizona. Immediately 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.

DeFord is survived by nine brothers and sisters, including a Marine Corps staff sergeant who is traveling home from Afghanistan, an older brother who is fighting fire with a helicopter team in New Mexico and a younger brother on a Hotshot crew in Alaska.



An avid snowboarder, Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California’s San Jacinto Valley, where he was a 2001 graduate of Hemet High School and a former member of the town’s fire department. He 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.

MacKenzie, like at least one other member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, had followed his father into firefighting. Michael MacKenzie, a former Moreno Valley Fire Department captain, confirmed he had been informed of his son’s death.

“I can’t talk about it,” he said.

Fulford-Brown, also a former firefighter, feared for the worst once he heard the news of the Arizona firefighters.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God. That’s Chris’ crew.’ I started calling him and calling him and got no answer,” Fulford-Brown told The Press-Enterprise.

MacKenzie, he said, “lived life to the fullest … and was fighting fire just like his dad.”

“He was finishing his credentials to get promoted and loved the people. It’s an insane tragedy.”



Eric Marsh, 43, was an avid mountain biker who grew up in Ashe County, N.C., but became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Arizona State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of his cousin.

Marsh lived with Racquer and her then-husband during the winters from 1992 through 1996 in North Carolina, but returned to Arizona during fire season.

After college, he kept working as a firefighter, eventually landing a full-time job and settling in northern Arizona. He even moved his parents to the state, she said. Marsh was superintendent of the Hotshot crew and the oldest of the 19 who died.

“He’s was great — he was the best at what he did,” Racquer said. “He is awesome and well-loved, and they are hurting,” she said of his family.

Marsh was married but had no children, said his cousin, Scott Marsh of Pisgah Forest, N.C. His father, John Marsh, told the Jefferson Post newspaper in Jefferson, N.C., that his only child “was a great son.”

“He was compassionate and caring about his crew.”



Grant McKee, 21, loved to give things away.

“Even as a child, I’d ask him where things were, and he’d say, ‘Oh, such and such liked it.’ And sometimes it really cost a lot! But he’d say, ‘Oh, he liked it so much,’” said his grandmother, Mary Hoffmann.

“So on his birthday, I started to say, ‘I hope you’re going to keep this!’” she said.

McKee’s cousin, Robert Caldwell, also was a Hotshot and also was killed Sunday.

“I had four grandchildren, but Grant was the sweetest most giving nature of any of my grandkids,” Hoffman said. “We used to think he was a little angel.”

McKee’s mother said Grant was training to be an emergency medical technician and only intended to work with the Hotshots for the summer.

During EMT training, he would ask for extra shifts at the emergency room. And because his superiors liked him, they would give them to him, Laurie McKee said.

“Grant was one of the most likable people you could ever meet,” she said. “Grant was friendly, he was outgoing. Everybody loved Grant.”



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.

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.”



Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott through his part-time job at Bucky O’Neill Guns.

“Here in Arizona the gun shops are a lot like barbershops. Sometimes you don’t go in there to buy anything at all, you just go to talk,” resident William O’Hara said. “I never heard a dirty word out of the guy. 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.”

O’Hara’s son Ryan, 19, said Norris’ life and tragic death had inspired him to live a more meaningful life.

“He was a loving guy. He loved life. And I’ve been guilty of not looking as happy as I should, and letting things get to me, and Scott wasn’t like that at all.”



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.



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 him as a fun-loving guy with an unforgettable laugh, The Oregonian newspaper reported.

McEvers said he learned about 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, 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,” he said. “We were all so very proud of him”

Flores said the town was planning a fundraiser for Rose’s family 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’s former colleagues remember him as a joker.

“He was a character. If you look at all the old photos of him, he was doing things to make people laugh,” said Cooper Carr, who worked with Steed in the Hotshots from 2001 to 2003.

“He was good at impressions, and he sang songs; he was just great for morale. He’d just talk in a funny voice and have us all in stiches,” Carr said. “And he was strong as an ox.”

Carr remembers that Steed once spent the better part of an hour positioning a water bottle just right for a photo so that it would look like Yosemite Falls was cascading into it.

Steed was also remembered for his dedication to fighting wildfires.

“He did it for a long, long time. I think he started in 2001, when he got out of the Marines. A job like the Hotshots is hard, hard work, and you don’t stay in it if you don’t love it,” Carr said.

Steed, 36, was one of the older members of the crew. Renton, Wash., police officer Cassidy Steed said his brother “always put his life on the line for people who he knew he would never meet.”



Back home in Cedar City, Utah, Joe Thurston, 32, used to go to an area reservoir with friends and promptly show how fearless he could be.

“He was definitely one of the daredevil types,” longtime friend Scott Goodrich told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We went to Quail (Creek) Reservoir, and we’d be finding 40- to 50-foot cliffs that people would be scared to jump off. He would just show up and be front-flipping off of them.”

He brought this bold streak to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

“He had all the qualities that a firefighter would need to possess,” E.J. Overson, another friend, told the Salt Lake City newspaper. “He was service-oriented, very caring and willing to do some things that many others would say, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’”

Thurston was also determined, generous and hardworking, his friends said.

He went to Cedar High School and Southern Utah University, played in a band and rode skateboards.

“He was one of the best guys I ever met,” Goodrich said.



Known as “Turby” among crew members, Travis Turbyfill got a full-time position with the Hotshots when another member’s girlfriend asked him to quit.

Turbyfill, 27, often worked with other Hotshots at Captain Crossfit, a warehouse filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings near the firehouse. He would train in the morning and then return in the afternoon with his wife and kids.

Trainer Janine Pereira said she recently kidded Turbyfill for skipping workouts. His excuse was that he wanted to spend some quality time at Dairy Queen.

“He was telling me that it’s because it was Blizzard week, and he was just going to eat a Blizzard every night,” she said.

Tony Burris, another trainer, said he enjoyed watching Turby with his two daughters.

“Because he’s this big, huge Marine, Hotshot guy, and he has two little girls — reddish-blond curly hair — and they just loved their dad,” he said.



Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif.

Warneke grew up in Hemet, Calif., along with his fellow Granite Mountain hotshot, Chris MacKenzie. He was a four-year Marine Corps veteran who served a tour in Iraq and had joined the hotshot crew in April, buying a property in Prescott, near where his sister lived, the newspaper reported.

Nancy Warneke said she called her sister after seeing the fire on the news.

“She said, ‘He’s gone. They’re all gone,’” Nancy Warneke told The Press-Enterprise. “Even though it’s a tragedy for the whole family, he was doing what he loved to do. He loved nature and was helping preserve nature.”



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.



For Kevin Woyjeck, 21, the fire station was a second home. His father, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency, said Kevin often accompanied his dad to the station and on ride-alongs and always intended to follow in his footsteps.

“He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand in hand,” Mora said Monday outside of the fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives.

Mora remembered the younger Woyjeck as a “joy to be around,” a man who always had a smile on his face. He had been trained as an EMT and worked as an Explorer, which is a mentorship training program to become a professional firefighter.

“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.”

As he spoke, Mora stood before an American flag that had been lowered to half-staff. His own fire badge was covered with a black elastic band, a show of respect and mourning for those lost in the line of duty.



Garret Zuppiger, 27, loved to be funny, said Tony Burris, a trainer at a gym where many of the Hotshots worked out.

Burris said the two bonded over their manly ginger facial hair.

“We both had a red beard and so we would always admire each other’s beards,” he said. “We also had a few conversations about beer.”

Zuppiger’s humor was evident on his blog, where he wrote about his grandmother’s one-eyed Chihuahua, his “best hair day ever” and a hike with his mother on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. There also are photos of a tongue-in-cheek project to build a “ski-chair,” in which a living room recliner was placed atop two skis.

“Garret Zuppiger turns 25!” he wrote in a post several years ago. “Everyday is like a gift!!”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press


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