FLAGSTAFF (CBS/AP) — Not a day goes by that Colleen Turbyfill doesn’t think of her son, his death as real and raw now as it was three months ago when the former Marine and 18 of his colleagues died battling a lightning-sparked wildfire in Arizona.
As authorities prepare to release the report into the deaths on Saturday, Turbyfill is hopeful that it will inform fire crews on how to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. On a personal level, she’s not looking forward to it and not even sure if she’ll read it right away.
“It’s not going to help me. He’s still dead,” she said of her son, Travis. “I still miss him, and it’s unbearable pain.”
Forestry officials and investigators are expected to brief the families on the roughly 120-page report Saturday ahead of a news conference at Prescott High School. The report is expected to outline the weather on June 30 when the Granite Mountain Hotshots died, the radio traffic, briefings and logistics of the crew. What it’s not expected to do is assign blame, officials said.
Early reports showed the fire caused little immediate concern because of its remote location and small size. But the winds kicked up and moved flames swiftly across the boulder-strewn mountains outside Yarnell, trapping the firefighters in a basin. The fire also destroyed more than 100 homes and burned 13 square miles before it was fully contained on July 10.
Only one member of the Hotshot crew, Brendan McDonough, survived. He was serving as the lookout and retreated after radioing his crew to say the fire was advancing on his position.
Questions remain about why the firefighters left the relative safety of a ridge top for an unburned area or if they knew of the erratically changing weather that whipped the blaze into an unpredictable inferno. Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said he’s confident the crew was properly trained and made the best decisions it could at the time.
“Whatever they could see, whatever instincts came into play, I would support that decision knowing I wasn’t there,” he said.
Greg Fine, whose daughter was engaged to firefighter Grant McKee, has walked those same mountains and studied the burn patterns. Fire is scientific to a certain point, he said, but it’s not always possible to calculate what firefighters should and shouldn’t do.
“Blame has no place in my view, it has no place at all,” said Fine, who spent 28 years as a firefighter. “Fire is not a friend. It’s sneaky, and it’s unpredictable. I’ve been in it and fought a lot of fires. You’re fortune when you win.”
Bob Hoyt, pastor at Heights Church in Prescott, said the few firefighters’ wives that he’s spoken to recently aren’t planning to attend Saturday’s news conference. For some, he said closure came when they received a photo of U.S. flags draped over the men’s bodies at the site.
“Really, it’s hard to understand this, but this was just the perfect storm,” Hoyt said. “There’s no one to blame.”
Rather than attend a gathering Saturday morning for families to receive and be briefed on the report ahead of the news conference, Fine said his daughter’s wishes are to meet with close family and friends to review the report on their own.
Colleen Turbyfill said she has been thinking that she would just pick up the report and put it in a drawer, “and maybe look at it a year down the road when it’s not so fresh and raw.”
Billy Warneke’s grandparents, Jack and Nancy Warneke, said family members have a great interest in what’s in the report and want to know what happened the day the Hotshots died, even though they know it won’t bring the 25-year-old back.
“You hear all sorts of stories, and you like to hear their (investigators’) point of view,” said Nancy.
“(I want to know) who made the mistakes, what mistakes were made. Why they were there and why they weren’t removed from there in time,” Jack added.
Joe Thurston’s mother, Gayemarie Ekker, said nothing will lessen the pain of knowing she cannot have her son back. She was filled with trepidation Friday awaiting the report that she plans to view online Saturday.
“We’ll see what the report says but you know, those that write the report weren’t there,” she said.
Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall said he hopes the report’s findings will allow the firefighters’ families to move forward with their lives as best as they can.
“As far as the play by play and what happened, obviously there’s curiosity there,” Kuykendall said. “But the intent of the report should be noted. It’s not to tell a story but open up some of the ‘what happened’ and what needs to be taken from that for future generations.”
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