(CNN) — The 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona wildfire last month understood what few did, Vice President Joe Biden told thousands who attended their memorial Wednesday.
They realized, he told a packed arena in Prescott Valley, that integrity “is measured by whether you respond to the needs of your neighbors.”
“(Help) came in the form of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots who rushed toward the flames as everyone else retreated. And in the process, 19 of them gave their lives,” Biden said.
“These men were some of the strongest, most disciplined, tenacious, physically fit men in the world — an elite unit in every sense of that phrase,” Biden said. “… They raced to embrace life just like they raced (to) the fight against … the raging fire on Yarnell Hill.”
Biden and other dignitaries — including Gov. Jan Brewer and the state’s U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake — joined relatives and a grieving community for the memorial, which paid tribute to the 19 elite firefighters who were overcome by a raging inferno on June 30.
The 19 — members of the Prescott Fire Department’s elite Granite Mountain Hotshots wildfire crew — died while battling the Yarnell Hill fire, which consumed thousands of acres northwest of Phoenix.
Officials have said it appears the 19 were forced to lie down under fire shelters, blankets meant to protect against flames and heat, as a last resort after the fire suddenly changed directions.
The thousands who filled Tim’s Toyota Center west of Prescott gave a standing ovation to the unit’s only survivor, Brendan McDonough, as he was introduced. Officials said McDonough was the unit’s lookout away from the burn zone, and warned his crewmates by radio that the fire had changed direction.
After reciting a firefighters’ prayer, McDonough made a simple tribute to his comrades.
“I miss my brothers,” he said, “and we’re here to remember them. I love my family … thank you for supporting me.”
The speakers were flanked by pictures of the 19. Brewer said they were “heroes, gone at the turn of the wind.”
“They were protectors, defending our communities, safeguarding our friends, family and strangers alike,” she said. “To the Yarnell 19, we will never forget your sacrifice and that of your families.”
Also speaking was Darrell Willis, the Prescott division fire chief who founded the hotshot group — one of about 180 elite teams in the country that are called to fight wildfires up close and clear out the brush that otherwise would fuel it.
Willis praised his fallen colleagues’ courage courage, professionalism and skill, telling the grieving relatives to “take comfort in the fact that I would have followed them blindfolded in the very (spot)” near Yarnell.
“They brought everything to the table. They gave their all. They were, in my words, right and tight,” he said.
The 19 firefighters were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.