Ariz. town honors fallen firefighters as it honors USA

Miniature flags with purple ribbons tied to them in honor of the 19 fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters who died Sunday, sit planted in the grass during the Fourth of July celebration at Pioneer Park, Thursday, July 4, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz. AP

PRESCOTT, Ariz. As many in this Old West town used the Independence Day celebration to honor 19 fallen firefighters, bereaved families began speaking more publically of their loved ones.

Coleen Turbyfill, mother of 27 year-old Travis Turbyfill, on Thursday recalled that she had misgivings when her son's elite "Hotshot" firefighting crew set out for a fire burning so close she could see the flames, but he comforted her and told her, "This is what I love."

Turbyfill and his 18 colleagues were killed last weekend battling a wildfire in Yarnell, not far from the place they called home.

A red-eyed Amanda Marsh called a press conference to make her first public statements about her husband, Hotshot leader and founder Eric Marsh.

"Eric and I don't have children, but he said that all the men on the crew were his kids," she told reporters at the local high school, a row of 16 firefighters standing behind her for support.

Across town, more than 10,000 residents found release for days' worth of pent up emotion in fireworks, dancing to patriotic songs, and the freedom to shout "America!" whenever the mood struck.

"It's a relief," said resident Todd Lynd as he watched a cover band play in front of a banner commemorating the fallen firefighters. "It's hard to heal by yourself."

The celebration -- traditionally the biggest day of the year in this city of 40,000 -- played out against the backdrop of handmade memorials, including clusters of 19 mini-American flags on grass lawns and rows of 19 candles glowing in packed restaurants.

Families who attended the nighttime fireworks display were together but apart from the crowd, escorted by police to a separate viewing area.

On Saturday, the town will hold its traditional July Fourth parade, which features cowboys on horses, and winds around the elm-lined courthouse square.

The men's bodies, still in Phoenix for autopsies, are expected to arrive on Sunday. Each firefighter will be driven in a hearse accompanied by motorcycle escorts and American flags.

A memorial service planned for Tuesday is expected to draw thousands of mourners.

The firefighters died of burns and inhalation problems, according to initial autopsy findings released Thursday.

Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office in Phoenix, said the Hotshots died from burns, carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, or a combination of the factors. The autopsies were performed Tuesday, but more detailed autopsy reports should be released in three months, pending lab work.

The Hotshots crew had deployed Sunday to what was thought to be a manageable lightning-caused forest fire near the small town of Yarnell, about 60 miles from Phoenix. Violent winds fueled the blaze and trapped the team. The Hotshots deployed their emergency fire shelters, but only the crew's lookout survived.

Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions. A team of forest managers and safety experts is investigating.

Nearly 600 firefighters continue to fight the blaze, and it was 80 percent contained on Thursday night. It has destroyed more than 100 homes and burned about 13 square miles. Yarnell remained evacuated, but authorities hope to allow residents back in by Saturday.

Operations section chief Carl Schwope said firefighter morale is on the upswing as they approach full containment. He said they want to put the fire out as a way to pay their respect to the fallen firefighters.

"I think we're getting to the point now where this fire's almost out, we'll all go home and it's a whole new reality," he said.

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