Reporting Colin Smith
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) – Elk River’s fire chief is one of thousands of firefighters attending a memorial service in Arizona on Tuesday to help lay 19 of his brothers to rest.
District Chief Phil Collins left Sunday, beginning a 25-hour drive to pay his respects to the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting team overrun by the Yarnell Fire on June 30.
“When you become a firefighter, you join a brotherhood that stretches across the country and around the world,” said Collins, a 25-year veteran with the Elk River Department. “The least we can do is be there to support the families.”
Dignitaries expected to attend the memorial include Vice President Joe Biden, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -– a former Governor of Arizona.
Also there will be the lone survivor. Brendan McDonough, 21, will offer what’s called “The Hotshots Prayer,” which ends with the line: “For if this day on the line/I should answer death’s call/Lord, bless my hot shot Crew/My family, one and all.”
The bodies of 19 elite Hotshot firefighters haven’t been left alone since they were pulled from a charred Arizona mountainside last week. It’s a tradition among the close-knit crews everywhere to stay by the fallen until they’re handed off to families for burial.
“When I first heard about the tragedy, I thought of my wife and children,” Collins said. “If something were to happen to me, who would be there to support them through the service and all of the hard times to come?”
The Hotshots were overrun by smoke and fire while battling a blaze on a ridge about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. McDonough was serving as a lookout and wasn’t in the immediate burn zone.
The Tuesday memorial service, “Our Fallen Brothers: A Celebration of Life,” will be the last of a handful of vigils for the men before the first of 19 funerals begin later in the week.
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