By John Dougherty
The two state investigations into the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots released to the public in 2013 did not include the complete autopsy and toxicology reports of the men who were killed on June 30, 2013 in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
And requests by the media to obtain the autopsy reports, which are typically public records, were rejected by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk who stated in an August 26, 2013 letter to the media that “absent a court order, these items will not be released.”
The Arizona Republic sued the Yavapai County Medical Examiner and the Yavapai County Sheriff on Sept. 18, 2013 seeking the autopsy records as well as additional information including photographs of the location where the men died in a box canyon at the base of the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell, AZ.
The Republic, however, dropped its claim against the Yavapai County Medical Examiner seeking copies of the autopsy reports on Sept. 30, 2013 after the state released the Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR) two days earlier.
The SAIR did not include the autopsy or the toxicology reports, but according to the Republic’s pleading, the investigative report “included the same essential information” that was being sought in the lawsuit.
Polk’s refusal to release the autopsy reports and the Republic’s decision to drop its lawsuit resulted in the autopsy reports being kept from public review, until now.
InvestigativeMEDIA filed a public records request with the Yavapai County Medical Examiner on Oct. 26 seeking the autopsy and toxicology records while specifically stating that photographs were not being sought. Yavapai County released the reports a couple of days later.
One of the most potentially significant, but easily misunderstood, findings in the toxicology reports is the presence of alcohol in the blood of 13 of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots ranging from .01 to .09 percent. A person is legally drunk in Arizona at .08%. Another hotshot had several drugs of abuse in his blood, but no alcohol.
The fact that alcohol was present in the blood of the 13 men raises the possibility the men were drinking heavily the night before or even while on the fire line. The presence of alcohol could also be the result of decomposition of the bodies that were subjected to extreme heat and left on the ground over night after the burn over that occurred at approximately 4:45 p.m.
“Although not well-known to most professionals, it is generally accepted and documented within the toxicological literature that severely burned postmortem bodies more often than not produce endogenous alcohol,” a Nov. 2013 report by Toxicology Consultants and Assessment Specialists, LLC states. “This phenomenon has been studied and published in articles by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following the autopsies of hundreds of plane crash victims known not to have consumed alcohol, USS Iowa turret gunnery disaster victims in 1989 and in many other severe burn cases.”
Three hotshots had alcohol in their blood and also in the fluid inside their eyes, known as vitreous humor. The presence of alcohol in both blood and vitreous samples is considered to be a possible indication that the alcohol was ingested rather than resulting from decomposition. But this, once again, is far from conclusive.
According to the toxicology report, Garrett Zuppiger had a blood alcohol content of .04% and vitreous alcohol sample of .01%. Robert Caldwell had a blood alcohol content of .01% and a vitreous alcohol sample of .01%. Maricopa County Medical Examiner Kathleen Enstice states that the presence of alcohol in the blood and vitreous samples for Zuppiger and Caldwell “was most likely due to decompositional changes.”
Joe Thurston had blood alcohol of .05% and a vitreous sample of .01%. Medical Examiner Mark Shelly did not provide an assessment on why alcohol was present in both samples.
The presence of alcohol in the blood of the other 10 hotshots without a corresponding presence of alcohol in vitreous sample is an indication that the alcohol was created after death, according to published studies. On the other hand, the fact that five hotshots showed zero alcohol in their blood raises questions of whether decomposition is the only cause for the presence of alcohol in the blood of the 13 other hotshots.
The presence of alcohol and/or drugs in 14 of the 19 hotshots was never disclosed or the subject of inquiry in the two state investigations into the Yarnell Hill Fire disaster which claimed the most lives of an Interagency Hotshot Crew in U.S. wild land fire fighting history.
There is no record of communications between the Serious Accident Investigation Team and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health with the Yavapai County Medical Examiner or the Maricopa County Medical Examiner, which conducted the autopsies on July 2 for Yavapai, that would show if or when the autopsy reports were provided to investigators, the medical examiners from both counties state in response to public records requests.
Neither the Serious Accident Investigation Report nor the wrongful death inquiry by the ADOSH examined what the men were doing the night before they were sent to Yarnell on what was supposed to be their first of two days off after working 28 of the previous 30 days including 26 days on fires and had just come off a 12-hour shift.
Published reports state at least three hotshots were drinking in a local Prescott bar on the evening of June 29. These included Zuppiger, Christopher MacKenzie and the crew’s sole survivor, Brendan McDonough.
The hotshots were drinking “at the Whiskey Row Pub, a dive in Prescott’s historic downtown,” according to 2013 story in Outside Magazine. “When the hotshots came to drink in groups, as they often did on rare days off, bartender Jeff Bunch gave them a discount. His son was a former crew member.”
MacKenzie had a blood alcohol content of .01%. There is no comment about the presence of alcohol in MacKenzie’s blood sample by Medical Examiner Christopher K. Poulos.
The autopsy and toxicology reports raise questions as to the condition of McDonough on June 30, 2013. McDonough was not tested, as far as is known, for alcohol or drugs despite the fact that his entire crew had been killed in an event that to this day no one has provided a clear explanation of the moments leading up to the disaster. McDonough was working as a lookout in a separate location and was not with the crew when it was trapped by a wall of flames.
Statements from an eyewitness who saw the crew on the morning of June 30 while ascending the Weaver Mountains raise questions about the physical condition of the men.
“What I saw was a group of men (who) were totally spent,” says Sonny Gilligan, an experienced hiker and former miner and cowboy who saw the crew hiking up a two-track trail at about 9:18 a.m. “They looked like they were tired. They weren’t somebody you would want to fight a fire. They needed rest.”
There’s also indication from the crew that many members were tired before they went to Yarnell. The men listed their energy level on a chalkboard inside the crew’s station on the morning of June 30. Two listed their “physical percentage” in the 30 percent range, one at 55%, three in the 60% range including superintendent Eric Marsh who reported 68% and three in the 70% range. One hotshot expressed he was ready for “moderate duty”. Only two hotshots said they were 100%.
Were the men exhausted from working nonstop most of the month of June?
Were some of them hung over from a long night on the town?
Were they worn out from celebrating their role in successfully fighting the Doce Fire a week earlier that threatened Prescott communities and where they were widely hailed as heroes?
The answers to these questions remain unknown.
The complete autopsy and toxicology reports are posted here. There are detailed descriptions of the conditions of the bodies that may be disturbing.© Copyright 2015 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA