(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.
Amanda Marsh contacted InvestigativeMEDIA Saturday evening, three days after it was reported her husband’s phone arrived with his body to the Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner on July 1 but was not later included as evidence collected by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office.
The YCSO collected other cell phones that arrived with the bodies of hotshots and sent them to the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center for analysis to determine whether data could be recovered.
Amanda Marsh said a Prescott firefighter later gave her Eric’s cell phone a few weeks after the fire. The firefighter, who she said was not in a command position, met her near the Yavapai County Courthouse in downtown Prescott.
“The phone was destroyed,” she said. “I threw it into a garbage can near the square.”
Amanda Marsh said there were also no text messages. “Eric used a flip phone and it was difficult for him to text,” she said.
She said Eric Marsh only had one cell phone. She noted that sometimes the crew took a satellite phone into remote areas, but she didn’t believe the satellite phone was used in Yarnell.
Amanda Marsh said no one from the Serious Accident Investigation Team that was contracted by the state to conduct an investigation into the disaster ever contacted her to obtain Eric’s cell phone records.
The SAIT released its Serious Accident Investigation Report on Sept. 28, 2013. The report found that no one did anything wrong despite the fact the hotshots were killed in a box canyon that wild land firefighters know are death traps.
Retired wildfire death investigator Dick Mangan has sharply criticized the SAIT for failing to obtain cell phone records, not only from Marsh, but everyone else working on the fire on June 30.
The use of cell phones during wildfires has become more common and has become a source of controversy since crucial decisions could be made privately that typically are done over radio channels that many firefighters can hear.
Amanda Marsh said she declined to provide the cell phone records in the past to InvestigativeMEDIA because she was trying to move on with her life.
She also said she knew the records didn’t show any communications between her husband and fire commanders in the moments leading up to the crucial decision around 4 p.m. to leave their safety zone.
The crew was attempting to reach another safety zone at the Boulder Springs Ranch on the outskirts of Yarnell. Former Prescott Wildlands Division Chief Darrell Willis, who oversaw the Granite Mountain crew, has said he believed the crew was moving in order to re-engage with the fire that was sweeping through Yarnell destroying more than one hundred homes.
(Willis Interview Part 1, July 23, 2013)
(Willis Interview, Part II, July 23, 2013)
The men were trapped by a wall flames at approximately 4:40 p.m. and deployed their fire shelters but there was no chance of survival from the 2,000 degree inferno.
The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health in December 2013 issued three citations and levied fines against the Arizona Forestry Division totaling $559,000 for its management of the fire.
But like the SAIT, Amanda Marsh said ADOSH investigators never contacted her about Eric’s cell phone records.
The Forestry Division reached a global settlement agreement last June 29 with ADOSH and 12 of the 13 families of the deceased hotshots who had sued the state. The settlement called for the state to pay $670,000 to the families with $50,000 going to each of the 12 families that settled and $10,000 to each of the remaining families.
The Forestry Division admitted to no wrongdoing in managing the fire.© Copyright 2015 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA