Eric Marsh had no cell phone communications in hours before deployment, his widow says

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(Story updated at 9:05 a.m., Dec. 21, 2015 to include Amanda Marsh’s statement that Eric Marsh only carried one cell phone.)

By John Dougherty

Granite Mountain Hotshot superintendent Eric Marsh did not make or receive any cell phone calls in the three hours leading up to the burn over that claimed his life along with 18 other members of his crew during the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, his wife Amanda Marsh said Saturday.

The question of whether Marsh was in cell phone communication with fire commanders in the hours leading up to the tragedy has lingered for more than two years after two state investigations failed to examine his cell phone records.

“There was nothing after 1:11 p.m.,” Amanda Marsh said. “That call was with Todd Abel.”  Abel was a senior commander directing fire suppression operations.

Abel has told investigators he had a cell phone discussion with Marsh at that time to discuss a disagreement Marsh had with another fire commander.

But the call was about three hours before Granite Mountain moved from a safe zone on a ridge in the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell and descended into a box canyon where the crew was trapped by flames at about 4:40 p.m.

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Key evidence in Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy never provided to official investigators

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(A version of this story was published online in Phoenix New Times on Dec. 16, 2015.)

By John Dougherty

Key evidence that could explain why the Granite Mountain Hotshots moved from a safe location into a treacherous box canyon where 19 men died on June 30, 2013 was in the possession of the Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner but was not provided to the state-contracted investigation into the tragedy, autopsy records recently obtained by InvestigativeMEDIA show.

A cell phone belonging to Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh and a functioning camera belonging to hotshot Christopher MacKenzie were with the men’s bodies when they arrived at the medical examiner’s office on July 1, 2013 but were not listed as evidence that was later collected by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, autopsy records for Marsh and MacKenzie show.

Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of an ancient tree on Granite Mountain after saving the tree during the June 2013 Doce Fire. Photo by Christopher MacKenzie

Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of an ancient tree they saved during the June 2013 Doce Fire. Photo by Christopher MacKenzie

The Maricopa County medical examiner conducted autopsies on all 19 hotshots for Yavapai County on July 2, 2013.

The YCSO has no record of Marsh’s cell phone or MacKenzie’s camera among the evidence collected from the medical examiner, according to a YCSO police report. Marsh’s cell phone and MacKenzie’s camera ended up with family members outside the formal chain-0f-custody.

MacKenzie’s autopsy report states Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne and YCSO Criminal Investigations Commander Lieutenant Tom Boelts were present. But neither name appears on Marsh’s autopsy report.

The YCSO was in charge of gathering all evidence from the medical examiner and later turning it over to the Serious Accident Investigation Team (SAIT) which was contracted by the Arizona Forestry Division to conduct the formal investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire disaster, according to the autopsy reports and the YCSO report.

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After years of delay, the Granite Mountain Hotshot autopsy records are released

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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. [Read more…]