Radio problems cited in deaths of 19 firefighters

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Shortly before 19 elite firefighters perished in a raging Arizona wildfire, commanders thought the crew was in a safe place. No one had heard from the Granite Mountain Hotshots for 33 minutes. The crew didn't contact commanders, and commanders didn't radio them.

Then it was too late.

A three-month investigation into the June 30 deaths released Saturday did not determine if the tragedy was avoidable, while outlining a series of missteps by the crew and commanders and revealing the more than half-hour of radio silence that occurred just before the firefighters were overwhelmed by flames.

It's not certain why the crew left what was believed to be a safe spot on a ridge that the fire had previously burned and, apparently seeking another safe location, unknowingly walked to their deaths in a basin thick with dry brush. At the time they died, an airtanker was circling overhead, confused about their location.

"There is much that cannot be known about the crew's decisions and actions" because of the gap in communications, the report concluded.

The 120-page report by a team of local, state and federal fire experts pointed to repeated problems with radios and contact with the crew. At one point, a pilot wanted to check on the firefighters after hearing radio traffic that they might be on the move, but commanders believed at that time the crew was positioned safely.

Ted Putnam, a former investigator for the U.S. Forest Service, said the report didn't go far enough to dissect the decisions made by the firefighters. When the crew members went silent and did not notify anyone they were changing locations "there's an active failure there," he said.

At a news conference in Prescott, where the fallen firefighters lived, Shari Turbyfill implored officials to draw stronger conclusions about why her stepson and his fellow firefighters died, and recommend immediate changes.

"I don't want another family to deal with this," she said.

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