A grim queue of white vans drove from Yarnell, Arizona, to Phoenix on Monday, transporting the charred bodies of 19 firefighters, 14 of them in their 20s, who had perished during a deadly and unpredictable wildfire the day before.
As investigators struggle to determine what exactly went wrong—how nearly an entire crew of elite firefighters could die in one blaze—residents of the tiny town are left to grapple with shock, loss, and grief.
The fire began Friday, officials said, and most likely was caused by lightning on Yarnell Hill, which overlooks the small community of about 700, many of them retirees. By Sunday, the shifting winds of a monsoon storm drove the flames toward the town. As the flames bore down on their homes, frantic residents of the Glen Ilah neighborhood released horses, pigs, chickens, and other animals from their pens and fled for their lives, transporting walkers and wheelchairs in the backs of their pickup trucks.
"I don't watch movies much, but it was like being in a very bad movie," says Vicki Velasquez, whose house was burned to the ground. "The flames were orange, and it was impossible to judge how close they were. My brain is still a little cloudy. I'm still in shock."
As residents fled, the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, a tight-knit group that included full-time and seasonal firefighters who worked on the front lines of fires across the United States, was in danger.
Fire officials lost contact with the crew around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, said David McAtee, a spokesman with the county’s Yavapai Emergency Operations Center. A helicopter crew spotted their bodies a short time later. “It’s one of those freak incidents where the wind split the fire and flanked them on both sides before they had a chance to get out of there,” McAtee said. “It eliminated their escape.”
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