PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The firefighters walked down the bleachers in a silent gymnasium full of mourners, their heavy work boots drumming a march on the wooden steps.
They bowed their heads for moments of silence at the front of an auditorium that was so packed organizers had to send people outside for fear of violating the fire code. The burly men then hugged each other and cried at the end of a deeply emotional memorial Monday evening in the Arizona mountain town of Prescott.
More than 1,000 people gathered in the gym on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus as others throughout the state and beyond also mourned the deaths of the 19 Prescott-based firefighters killed Sunday outside nearby Yarnell. The day marked the nation's deadliest for fire crews since Sept. 11, 2001.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice at the memorial as he described throwing a picnic a month ago for the department's new recruits and meeting their families.
"About five hours ago, I met those same families at an auditorium," he said. "Those families lost. The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost, the state of Arizona and the nation lost," he said before receiving a standing ovation as he left the lectern.
For the 19 killed, violent wind gusts turned a lightning-caused forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.
In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters — members of a highly skilled Hotshot crew — unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant shelters and rushed to cover themselves on the ground. But the success of the shelters depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging fire.
Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.
The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours, and Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo said the wind and fire made it impossible for the firefighters to flee around 3 p.m. Sunday.
"The winds were coming from the southeast, blowing to the west, away from Yarnell and populated areas. Then the wind started to blow in. The wind kicked up to 40 to 50 mph gusts and it blew east, south, west — every which way," Scamardo said. "What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back, and trapped them."
Authorities are investigating to figure out what exactly went wrong after the wind suddenly changed direction. Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, will be the lead in the probe and will aim to put out a report in the coming days with preliminary information, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.
The multi-agency group of investigators arrived Monday and was being briefed in Phoenix. Judith Downing, a spokeswoman for the taskforce, said they would go to the fire scene Tuesday.
Fire spokeswoman Karen Takai said Tuesday morning that higher humidity overnight helped make conditions a bit less volatile. But there was still no part of the Yarnell Hill Fire that was contained, and thunderstorms that bring little rain and a lot of lightning remained a major threat because of the dry vegetation, she said.