InvestigativeMedia is republishing its story from last year on Brendan McDonough following the Arizona Republic story released April 4, 2015.
By John Dougherty
If anyone knows why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left a safe area on top of the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell and descended into a box canyon that became the worst death trap in the nationwide history of such crews, it’s Brendan McDonough.
The only survivor of the 20-member hotshot crew that perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, McDonough, 23, is in the unique position to have heard some, if not all, of the discussions between Granite Mountain Supervisor Eric Marsh and Captain Jesse Steed in the moments before Marsh, Steed, and the others died.
What McDonough heard could explain why the crew moved off the mountain and whether it was ordered to do so by fire commanders. But McDonough isn’t speaking publicly, and two state-sponsored investigations into the tragedy have shed no light on what he heard over Granite Mountain’s intra-crew radio channel.
His silence has angered one widow who believes it’s time for McDonough to share what he knows.
“The answers I’ve received from him are brief, and clearly he’s been coached,” Juliann Ashcraft writes in reply to an e-mail sent to 12 families who are plaintiffs in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Arizona Forestry Division, the Central Yavapai Fire District, and individual fire commanders.
For many wildlands firefighters, there is no rational explanation for Granite Mountain to have left its safety zone on top of the Weavers. The crew embarked on a treacherous path that violated basic firefighting rules by descending into a box canyon packed with volatile chaparral at the hottest time of day with a severe thunderstorm approaching and an extreme fire less than a mile away.
“It just makes my stomach turn,” says Bob Powers, a retired wildlands firefighter in Twin Falls, Idaho, who has closely tracked the investigations into Yarnell Hill. Powers has a special interest in the tragedy because his father was one of 15 firefighters killed in the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire in Northern California. “Why in the world would anybody walk down there in that heavy brush with the fire less than three-quarters of a mile away? It didn’t make any sense.”
The two investigations into the tragedy — the Serious Accident Investigation report sponsored by the state Forestry Division, released last September, and an investigation by the Arizona Industrial Commission’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, released in December — state that McDonough heard Marsh and Steed discussing their “options” of whether to stay in the safe, burned-over area that wildlands firefighters call “the black,” or to move the crew.
Neither investigation provides detail about what options were discussed by Marsh and Steed, nor whether there was sharp disagreement, as recent reports suggest, over the proposed course of action that McDonough may have overheard on Granite Mountain’s radio channel — a frequency not monitored by senior commanders.
Instead, there only are oblique references to the Marsh-Steed discussions, with McDonough careful not to cast blame by telling ADOSH investigators that the fatal entrapment was just a freak accident.
McDonough stated during an October 10, 2013, interview with ADOSH: “It’s not that it wasn’t a wrong decision. It just wasn’t the right one, if that makes sense?”
Yarnell was under evacuation orders at the time the crew left its safety zone high above the fray and began its ultimately unsuccessful attempt to re-engage with the fire raging in the valley below.
“If they could be useful somewhere else, I think they felt honor bound to do that,” Prescott Wildlands Division Chief Darrell Willis says of crew members. Willis oversaw the Granite Mountain Hotshots but was not with the crew in Yarnell. “They weren’t a crew that would just be good without doing anything. They wanted to do good for other people. So whatever that was, and if they thought they could re-engage, they probably would [try].”
While the crew may have had noble intent, the tactical decision to move out of the black was clearly a disaster. How that decision came about, who was involved, and whether there was dissent, pressure, or objections from fire commanders to move are crucial questions that remain a mystery that McDonough might be able to help solve.
McDonough has been treated gently by the media because of the magnitude of the loss of his colleagues and friends. He declined to be interviewed for this story or to respond to e-mailed questions concerning the discussions between Marsh and Steed.
McDonough’s silence supports — whether intentional or not — the basic conclusion in the original investigation report that no one did anything wrong in Yarnell. The Forestry Division is expected to rely heavily on this conclusion in the pending wrongful-death suit and in its appeal of a $559,000 fine levied by ADOSH for gross negligence in managing the fire.
Fourteen months have passed since the 19 young men died in the most horrific manner imaginable. Debate continues to rage on how an experienced hotshot crew ended up in the worst possible location that provided no escape from the wall of flames racing across the incendiary desert scrub. This isn’t supposed to happen to an “elite” wildfire crew.
“I guess it comes down to the fact that, with 19 men dead, with all the interviews, we still don’t know why,” Prescott’s Chief Willis says. “I still want to know why.”
|Courtesy of AZFS|
|The 19 fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots were honored July 9, 2013, at a memorial service in Prescott Valley.|
Brendan McDonough joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots as a seasonal employee in April 2011. Last summer was his third season with the crew, having been hired in April at $12.48 an hour.
His previous work experience was limited: He was an auto-shop employee, worked at a home-improvement store in the garden department, and as a prep cook and busboy.
McDonough was a relatively inexperienced hotshot. He’d completed 12 hours of fire-science classes at Yavapai Community College. He’d attended the Arizona Wildfire Academy in Prescott, from which he earned several wildland fire certifications.
McDonough joined his crew members on the early-morning hike up the Weaver Mountains to the location where the lightning-triggered fire had started two days earlier.
The young man told ADOSH investigators that the crew’s safety zones consisted of either several hundred acres of black at the top of the Weavers or at Boulder Springs Ranch in the valley below, where vegetation had been cleared around the property.
A two-track trail ran from near the top of the mountain to the ranch and was the path the hotshots were to take. The trail followed a circuitous route along the ridge line to the south before hooking to the east. The Granite Mountain Hotshots later deviated from the two-track trail and took a more direct path to the ranch by descending through unburned chaparral into the box canyon where members were entrapped.
About midday, McDonough was given a new assignment as lookout for the crew. He was moved to position on a rocky outcropping on the valley floor surrounded by high-desert scrub. From his perch, McDonough could see the fire moving north toward Peeples Valley and away from his and the crew’s locations. He was also keeping an eye on the mountain slopes below Granite Mountain’s position in case any fire blew upslope.
Throughout the afternoon, McDonough told investigators, he was monitoring radio traffic on different channels, each dedicated to a separate activity on the fire. But his priority, McDonough said, was to monitor Granite Mountain’s intra-crew channel.
About 3:50 p.m., Granite Mountain Captain Jesse Steed contacted McDonough and told him about a weather report that predicted high winds up to 60 miles per hour from a thunderstorm approaching from the northeast. McDonough said he felt the wind shift 180 degrees, describing it to investigators as a “phenomenal change” and noting that wind velocity began to increase.
Two minutes later, at 3:52 p.m., McDonough said the fire, which then had reversed direction, reached the “trigger points” for him to abandon his lookout position. McDonough said he considered going to two different safety zones (he was away from the rest of the crew so his zones weren’t the same) where he could deploy his fire shelter if necessary.
As it turned out, neither safety zone would’ve provided adequate protection to survive the fire, investigators later concluded. Retired firefighter Bob Powers is astounded that McDonough and Granite Mountain’s leaders believed that his lookout location was suitable.
“Why would you put a lookout out in the middle of brush pile with no feasible escape route and no safety zone to drop into?” Powers asks.
That McDonough — and Granite Mountain’s commanders — would consider the safety zones suitable provides important insight into the decisions that the crew made later that afternoon.
McDonough told ADOSH investigators that his two options were to occupy a small clearing around an abandoned road grader or to scramble uphill to a burned area on the slope of the mountain.
Both were terrible choices.
The clearing around the grader was nowhere large enough to protect him from the 30-foot flames leaping from the drought-stricken landscape. His other choice of reaching the black on the mountain slope was perhaps even worse. Not only would McDonough have had to outrace the fire, which he knew would move faster on an upward slope, he would’ve had to move through unburned chaparral or follow a longer path along a two-track trail.
This was the same scenario the rest of his crew later would face: Either follow the longer two-track trail along the ridge line (where members could continue to see the fire to reach Boulder Springs Ranch) or wade through unburned chaparral down a deep slope (where they no longer could see the fire) and through a box canyon to reach the ranch.
ADOSH investigator Marshall Krotenberg pressed McDonough on his selection of safety
zones, asking the survivor the distance to the black.
“Mmm, I can’t recall,” McDonough said.
Krotenberg then asked McDonough how wildland firefighters calculate the amount of time needed to travel a certain distance based on the terrain and the speed of approaching fire to get out of harm’s way.
Again, McDonough was vague: “I just, with the experience . . . just seeing the way the fire moves and the fuel types and, I mean, sometimes you just don’t know.”
|Courtesy of AZFS|
|(Clockwise, from top left) Andrew Ashcraft, Eric Marsh, Brendan McDonough, and Jesse Steed|
McDonough’s guesswork to determine safe travel times and his willingness to consider a safety zone that required him to travel uphill through “the green,” in conjunction with the path Granite Mountain later took into the box canyon, paints a troubling portrait of a crew that was willing to operate outside wildfire safety rules.
Soon after McDonough left his lookout post, Granite Mountain leaders made the crucial decision to abandon their safety zone in the black and descend into the box canyon. The decision violated wildland firefighting rules, ADOSH concluded.
“There is no evidence that [Granite Mountain] had scouted and timed alternative escape routes or checked the escape route they used for loose soils, rocks, or excessive vegetation. There is also no evidence that the crew had evaluated the escape time versus the potential rate of spread [of the fire] based upon the afternoon weather forecast,” the ADOSH report states.
Fortunately for McDonough, he didn’t have to rely on either of his grossly inadequate safety zones. Blue Ridge Hotshots superintendent Brian Frisby picked up the lookout in an ATV three minutes after he had abandoned his post and moved him to safety.
Frisby drove McDonough to Marsh’s truck and dropped him off shortly before 4 p.m. McDonough then joined other members of Blue Ridge in a convoy to move Granite Mountain’s two crew buggies and a chase vehicle out of the path of the rapidly advancing blaze. All four of the vehicles contained radios with access to Granite Mountain’s intra-crew channel.
“I started the truck, turned on the AC, and made sure the truck radios were on the right channel and volume [was] up,” McDonough told SAI investigators.
The investigators’ report states that it was at this time that McDonough heard the key discussions between Marsh and Steed: “On the Granite Mountain intra-crew frequency, [McDonough] hears [Marsh] and [Steed] talking about their options, whether to stay in the black or to come up with a plan to move.”
There is no record, however, in the SAI or the ADOSH reports about what McDonough or the Blue Ridge hotshots driving the Granite Mountain vehicles possibly heard discussed by Marsh and Steed.
McDonough, however, does provide ADOSH investigators with important hints about the attitudes of Granite Mountain’s leaders concerning orders designed to protect firefighters from danger.
“You can’t abide by every single one of them,” McDonough said of the “10 Orders and 18 Watch-Out Situations” developed after a U.S. Forest Service review of 16 fatal fires between 1937 and 1956.
Instead, McDonough said, if situations arose where orders were violated or watch-out situations were occurring, it raised the crew’s awareness that it was facing potentially unsafe conditions.
“When you see [such incidences], it’s . . . a trigger in your brain that it’s not safe,” he told ADOSH investigators. “And it makes you step back and look around and see what’s going on.”
McDonough was dismissive of one of the 10 Standard Orders that calls for firefighters to “fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.”
He said, “It’s hillbilly. It’s old.”
Modern wildland firefighters, he said, don’t need to follow such restrictions.
“We’re smarter,” McDonough said. “We’re a lot smarter.”
|City of Prescott/YouTube|
|Granite Mountain’s all-terrain vehicle was destroyed at the 2012 Halstead Fire in Idaho’s Salmon Challis National Forest.|
In late June, Mike Dudley, co-leader of the Yarnell Hill Serious Accident Investigation Team, made an intriguing presentation to wildland firefighters that suggests there is an ongoing effort to obscure the truth about last summer’s tragedy.
The SAI report, Dudley told the event hosted by the Utah Fire Authority, never was intended to point out violations of basic firefighting rules, such as the 10 Standard Orders and 18 Watch-Out Situations or other guidelines, including general requirements known by the acronym LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones.)
“We were not there to specifically point fingers unless we had come up with something that was criminal intent, which was not the case,” Dudley said. “We’re trying to gather the truth and [trying to] figure out what happened for people to learn from, and, at the same time, you want people to be able to come and talk to [us] willingly and not feel like that whatever they say is going lead . . . to any kind of prosecution. That’s a key element.”
Dudley said the most critical interview of the investigation was with Brendan McDonough. The next most important interviews, he said, were with Blue Ridge Hotshots. Notes of Dudley’s interview with McDonough, released by the Forestry Division, cover fewer than three pages and abruptly end immediately after McDonough told investigators he turned up the radios in Marsh’s truck.
Statements written by Blue Ridge Hotshots released by the state Forestry Division also are heavily redacted — so much so that ADOSH investigators later said they were useless. The federal Forest Service refused to allow ADOSH to interview Blue Ridge crew members.
Notes of the Serious Accident Investigation Team’s interview with Blue Ridge superintendent Brian Frisby and three other senior Blue Ridge crew members span only five pages and make no mention of whether anyone on that crew heard the conversations between Marsh and Steed about moving the men.
|Prescott Fire Department Wildlands Division Chief Darrell Willis at the Yarnell deployment site where his crew perished on June 30, 2013.|
In his presentation, Dudley misled firefighters by telling them that McDonough didn’t provide any useful information because he had given his radio to Frisby when Frisby picked up McDonough on the ATV after the young hotshot left his lookout post.Investigators, Dudley continued, knew radio communications between Granite Mountain crew members were ongoing but that “none of it is recorded. No one hears that.”
Dudley’s statement is directly contradicted by his own investigation report. The SAI report states that McDonough heard Marsh and Steed discuss their options after getting into Marsh’s truck. There also is no evidence that Frisby kept McDonough’s radio after a brief conversation with Steed and Marsh about moving the Granite Mountain vehicles to a safe area.
Dudley noted that Marsh had acted as division supervisor throughout the day, which meant he had responsibility for all crews within a defined geographic area on the southwest corner of the fire. Marsh’s role as division supervisor has important implications for what appears to be a general lack of communications about Granite Mountain’s movements.
The decision early on that Sunday morning to make Marsh division supervisor meant that Steed assumed direct control of Granite Mountain. As the day progressed, no other crews were assigned to Marsh’s division. This meant Marsh had only one crew under his direct command, his own.
Because he had no other crew resources, Marsh appears to have elected to communicate with Granite Mountain primarily through the intra-crew radio channel rather than through a tactical channel that would’ve been overheard by other fire commanders.
Marsh’s decision to use intra-crew frequencies greatly reduced the number of people who could’ve overheard what options Marsh and Steed discussed about moving the crew, which is why what McDonough — or possibly members of the Blue Ridge Hotshots — heard is so important.
|Serious Accident Investigation Team co-leader Mike Dudley|
A firefighter listening to his remarks pressed Dudley on this issue, saying discussions on where to move the crew should’ve been made on a tactical channel rather than an intra-crew channel because such an action would’ve had a significant effect on many other people fighting the fire.”I agree,” Dudley replied.
Dudley’s conclusion that Marsh should’ve used a tactical channel isn’t included in the SAI report.
According to Prescott Wildlands Chief Willis, Marsh’s use of the intra-crew channel rather than the tactical channels to discuss moving the crew may be the most significant lesson learned from the tragedy. If Marsh and Steed had communicated on tactical frequencies, Willis agrees, “more people would have heard it.”
And if more people had been aware that the crew actually was considering dropping into the box canyon, senior fire managers might’ve been in a position to object to the plan as too risky.
Dudley then told the firefighters that Marsh “was being deliberately vague” during a radio exchange with Frisby when Marsh described his plan to move the crew. The conversation occurred about 4 p.m., when Frisby drove members to Granite Mountain’s vehicles so the equipment could be moved.
Dudley told the firefighters that Granite Mountain crew members, at least initially, were in “lockstep with one another” as they began their descent from the black on the mountaintop.
That assessment, Dudley stated, is based on information obtained from Blue Ridge Hotshots, although no such reference appears in the heavily redacted statements of Blue Ridge crew members. Dudley’s lockstep characterization also does not appear in the Serious Accident Investigation report.
Soon after leaving the black, Granite Mountain connected with the two-track trail and began heading south along a ridge. This was the path that McDonough told ADOSH investigators was the planned escape route to Boulder Springs Ranch. The two-track trail follows the ridge before entering the dip referred to as a saddle.
Dudley then made public for the first time that serious dissension within Granite Mountain may have erupted after the crew reached the saddle, west of the ranch in the valley below. From the saddle, the ranch appears tantalizingly close, he said.
“There’s some allegations that there was an argument between the captain and the superintendent about which way to go from the saddle,” Dudley said. “We can’t validate that. Some people made that allegation. We don’t have any evidence of that.”
An unconfirmed report circulating among wildland firefighters describes a heated debate between Marsh and Steed. Marsh, according to this report, asked Steed three times to bring the crew to the ranch from the saddle. Steed refused. Marsh, who reportedly was below the crew and somewhere near Boulder Springs Ranch, then ordered Steed, a former Marine, to bring down the crew from the saddle.
It’s unknown whether this scenario is the allegation that Dudley referred to, or even whether the sequence of events and Marsh’s purported location near the ranch are true.
One person who might know is McDonough.
What is known is that just moments before crew members deployed their fire shelters at the base of the box canyon about 600 yards southwest of Boulder Springs Ranch, Marsh wasn’t with them. But he was very close.
About 4:30 p.m, Marsh told an airborne commander that Granite Mountain was going down its escape route to a safety zone. The commander asked Marsh whether there was a problem, and Marsh said no, that the crew just was moving.
At 4:37 p.m., Marsh again contacted the airborne commander in a plane leading a DC-10 tanker loaded with 10,743 gallons of fire retardant. The tanker was making a west-to-east practice run near Yarnell.
“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Marsh told the airborne commander. “That’s where we want the retardant.”
The location where Marsh wanted the retardant dropped suggests he was concerned about the fire approaching from the north and wanted the retardant to slow the flames so that his crew had time to reach Boulder Springs Ranch, only a few-minute march from the base of the box canyon.
Two minutes later, at 4:39 p.m., as the tanker still was making a turn to make the final run to drop its load, someone from Granite Mountain made the first desperation radio call: “Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front.”
Within 90 seconds, Marsh rejoined the crew and radioed the airborne commander: “Yeah, I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots; our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site, and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush, and I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh, the shelters.”
Unaware of the crew’s location, the airborne commander asked Marsh if the crew was at the south end of the fire.
“Affirm,” Marsh yelled.
Time rapidly was running out for the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The 2,000-degree fire roared into the canyon with the fury of a mammoth blowtorch. Propelled by powerful winds, it traveled at tremendous speed, covering the last 100 yards to where the hotshots desperately deployed their fire shelters (meant to withstand heat up to 300 degrees) in just 19 seconds.
|City of Prescott/YouTube|
|Granite Mountain Hotshot crew members frequently fought fires with their fire-resistant shirt sleeves rolled up, a violation of safety rules.|
That Granite Mountain violated several of the 10 Standard Orders when it dropped off the saddle and descended into the chaparral-choked box canyon — on one of the hottest days of the summer as a powerful thunderstorm approached and after watching extreme fire behavior all day — strongly suggests the crew wasn’t averse to taking risks.
“Nobody in their right mind would have left the black in those conditions and gone down into the bowl, into the green. That’s like suicide,” says a former hotshot superintendent who asked not to be identified because he still actively fights wildfires.
A pattern of risky behavior and questionable decision-making by Granite Mountain emerged long before the Yarnell Hill catastrophe.
The mindset of the Granite Mountain crew was reflected in members’ tendency to roll up the sleeves of their fire-resistant shirts while on fire lines — in violation of basic firefighting regulations. A 2012 video documenting the fires Granite Mountain fought that season repeatedly shows them working on the fire line with sleeves rolled up.
“A lot of people, they roll up their sleeves ’cause it gets hot,” McDonough told ADOSH investigators. “There’s certain things you just do.”
Though this may appear to be a minor infraction, the behavior can result in severe burns in a matter of seconds if a fire suddenly flares up, and it could cause a firefighter to make crucial mistakes by losing focus in a hazardous and rapidly changing environment.
A Forest Service firefighter who asked not to be identified says he personally reprimanded Marsh for having his sleeves rolled up while on a fire in New Mexico and directed him to roll down his sleeves and to order other Granite Mountain crew members to do the same.
Marsh, he says, responded by rolling down his sleeves only part of the way.
The refusal to properly wear safety gear, the Forest Service firefighter says, projects an “unsafe attitude” that firefighters are somehow immune from the inherent dangers of the job. Several Granite Mountain Hotshots died with their sleeves rolled up. Ten of the hotshots were not wearing protective gloves when they perished.
“They didn’t die because they had their sleeves rolled up,” the Forest Service firefighter says. “They died because of the attitude to have their sleeves rolled up.”
Granite Mountain also had a history of placing its transportation equipment in hazardous locations.
The crew’s all-terrain vehicle was destroyed at the 2012 Halstead Fire in Idaho’s Salmon Challis National Forest — leaving members without a crucial piece of equipment that could’ve helped scout escape routes a year later in Yarnell. The SAI report notes that Granite Mountain had restricted mobility in Yarnell and that because the crew “was on foot, their ability to scout potential escape routes was limited.”
Granite Mountain ordered a new all-terrain vehicle after the 2012 fire season, but it didn’t arrive until after the Yarnell Hill Fire, Chief Willis says. The ATV now sits unused inside Granite Mountain’s crew station in downtown Prescott.
|Courtesy of Bob Powers|
|Retired wildlands firefighter Bob Powers.|
Granite Mountain’s two white crew buggies were nearly destroyed in 2012 during the Holloway Fire along the Oregon-Nevada border. An online video taken by an engine crew shows two firefighters using a water hose to control an aggressive brush fire rapidly approaching Granite Mountain’s carriers. No Granite Mountain crew member remained on the site to move the vehicles if necessary.
The same situation occurred in Yarnell. Granite Mountain left its crew carriers, a chase truck, and Marsh’s truck, at the base of the Weaver Mountains. The fire was moving away from the area all day. The crew apparently didn’t anticipate that the fire could reverse direction, even though the monsoon season was under way and lightning from a thunderstorm had ignited the fire two days earlier.
Repositioning Granite Mountain’s vehicles became a major priority that fateful afternoon and required Blue Ridge to devote considerable time and resources during a chaotic time to make sure they were safe, along with lookout Brendan McDonough.
“If [Blue Ridge Superintendent Frisby] hadn’t come around the corner at the time that he did, [McDonough] would’ve been the first fatality. Guaranteed,” Dudley told the Utah firefighters. “There was no place for that lookout to have safely deployed, and he was way too close when he decided to bail out from where the fire was.”
|An engine crew puts out a brush fire as the flames approach Granite Mountain’s two crew buggies during the Holloway Fire on the Oregon-Nevada border in 2012.|
Granite Mountain’s propensity for risk doesn’t necessarily mean that Marsh made the decision independently for his crew to leave the black and move toward Boulder Springs Ranch without clearly notifying superiors and receiving approval.
For some experts who’ve closely analyzed the investigation, it’s difficult to conceive that Marsh would undertake such an action without outside direction.
“I can’t imagine Marsh doing that on his own,” says Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor in the School of Life Sciences and an expert on wildfires.
The only thing that is certain is that confusion ran rampant that day. The two investigations present conflicting scenarios of whether the crew was asked to move by fire commanders — and once the crew began to move, whether commanders knew they had left their safe area on the mountain and knew where they were going.
The SAI report stated that investigators found no evidence that anyone ordered Marsh to move the crew: “The team has no indication that anyone asked them to move and does not know for certain why they moved.”
The ADOSH investigation, released three months after the SAI report, found information that contradicts the SAI’s conclusions. ADOSH found that state Forestry Planning Section Chief Paul Musser did ask Granite Mountain at 3:42 p.m. whether it had spare resources that could be used in Yarnell.
“I called Granite on the radio and asked if [it] and Blue Ridge were still committed on the ridge,” Musser told ADOSH investigators. “They said that they were committed on the ridge. But [that] Blue Ridge was on the bottom and may be available.”
Chief Willis says Musser’s request and Granite Mountain’s turndown was nothing unusual during a wildfire.
A few minutes later, a video taken by Granite Mountain crew member Robert Caldwell captured a portion of a communication between Marsh and field operations section chief Todd Abel.
Abel told SAI investigators during his August 14, 2013, interview that he didn’t remember the conversation (even after investigators played the Caldwell video) and couldn’t provide additional context to the clips that capture just a few seconds of the exchange.
“I’m working my way off the top,” Marsh told Abel.
“Okay, keep me informed,” Abel replied. “You guys hunker and be safe, and we’ll get some air support down there ASAP.”
A summer later, Willis says Abel’s instruction to “hunker and be safe” should’ve been interpreted as an order for Marsh and the crew to remain in the black. “Hunker down, to me, means to stay where you are at,” he says.
Nevertheless, Granite Mountain began to move from the black toward the ranch sometime after 4:04 p.m.
Abel and Musser, the two key state fire commanders in charge of field and planning operations, respectively, gave different accounts of what happened next.
Abel told ADOSH investigators that he believed Granite Mountain had remained in the black and didn’t know the crew had moved toward Yarnell: “I had no idea they left that location.”
Musser, however, told ADOSH that he had heard Granite Mountain tell someone sometime after 4:04 p.m. that the crew was moving: “I think they said we’re going down our predetermined route toward the structures.”
A third fire commander, Gary Cordes, in charge of structural protection crews in Yarnell, also told ADOSH that he heard Marsh say he was going to “his predesignated safety zone.”
Cordes, in a September 11, 2013, interview, said his “assumption was that he was headed to the, um, to the Boulder Springs Ranch.”
Cordes said he wasn’t surprised that Granite Mountain attempted to reach the ranch. It was Cordes who alerted Marsh about the ranch as a possible safety zone earlier in the morning.
The conflicting findings of the two investigations may reflect the confusion of incident commanders unclear about what Granite Mountain was doing. Even more important, there is no evidence in the ADOSH investigation that either Cordes or Musser sought additional information from Marsh and Granite Mountain about the crew’s exact location and its intended destination even as the fire’s intensity was increasing greatly and moving rapidly south toward Yarnell and the ranch.
Was the decision to move the crew Marsh’s alone? Or did a fire commander contact Marsh, possibly by cell phone, and demand that the crew get to Yarnell to assist in the chaotic evacuation of residents. Fire commanders, who admitted that they underestimated the ferocity and rate of speed of the blaze, failed to issue a mandatory evacuation notice to Yarnell residents until about 4 p.m. Residents still were fleeing the community an hour later, as flames swept through and propane tanks exploded.
Neither investigation has reviewed Marsh’s phone records to determine whether anyone contacted him during this crucial period. New Times obtained Chief Willis’ phone records for June 30, and there is no record that Willis called Marsh during this period.
Willis did place a call to Marsh’s cell phone after he learned that the crew had deployed its fire shelters, but there was no answer.
The failure to examine phone records, used routinely by fire commanders (including Marsh) throughout the day, is a “red flag,” says Dick Mangan, a former wildlands firefighter and investigator of several major fire disasters.
Everyone’s phone records should be reviewed to see who was talking to whom and when, he says: “It’s just common sense.”
The need to review phone records is especially acute because of recent findings in audio clips heard on videos released by the Forestry Division that appear to capture conversations between Marsh and fire commanders about the crew’s movements.
Members of the public have spent considerable time analyzing thousand of photographs and scores of videos that are part of the supplemental records for both investigations (posted at www.investigative media.com). The public discovered several intriguing audio snippets suggesting that fire commanders were aware that Granite Mountain had left the black and was heading toward Yarnell.
One audio clip heard on a video shot by Blue Ridge Hotshot Ian McCord possibly captures someone from fire command saying he would “appreciate it if they could travel a little faster.”
A few seconds later, a voice that may have been Marsh’s replies, “They are coming from the heel of the fire.”
It’s uncertain whether the person requesting faster travel referred to Granite Mountain and whether the voice stating that the crew was coming from the heel of the fire was, in fact, responding to the hurry-up request.
The audio clip is believed to have occurred at 4:27 p.m., about the same time that Granite Mountain dropped off the two-track road and began its descent into the box canyon. The SAI report stated that the crew left the two-track “sometime about 4:20 p.m.”
The audio occurred in the middle of a 33-minute gap between 4:04 and 4:37 p.m., when the SAI report stated that there was no communication between Granite Mountain/Marsh and fire commanders. Several other audio clips suggest ongoing communication between Marsh and fire commanders during the supposed communication gap.
Regardless of whether Marsh was ordered to move the crew from the black and travel to Yarnell, the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the Granite Mountain crew rests with its commanders, him and Steed. The order could’ve been refused, wildfire experts say.
“It’s still the crew boss who’s responsible to get off the mountain the safest way he can,” says retired firefighter Bob Powers. “I’m going to take the safest route to get off that mountain. If I can’t find a safe route, I’m sitting there until I can.”
|City of Prescott/YouTube|
|Granite Mountain Hotshot crew members frequently fought fires with their fire-resistant shirt sleeves rolled up, a violation of safety rules.|
The question of why the crew moved off the mountain haunts family members of the dead firefighters. The 12 families that have filed the wrongful-death suit will keep the tragedy in the center of their lives for years to come as the litigation slowly plays out in court.
Deborah Pfingston, mother of hotshot Andrew Ashcraft, is sharply critical of the SAI report and believes it’s an attempt to exonerate incompetent fire commanders and point the finger at Marsh for the crew’s deaths.
“Eric [Marsh] was a quality, down-to-earth man,” she says. “They [crew members] were his sons. He never would’ve led them into danger. Never!”
Juliann Ashcraft is enraged over the lack of answers and what she considers an effort to hide the truth of what led to the death of her husband and the other Granite Mountain Hotshots.
“The coverups have been taken to a revolting level, and regard for human life and human decency has been lost,” she says in her e-mail.
Ashcraft says Brendan McDonough, in particular, has a duty to publicly tell what he knows about the events leading up to the disaster.
“He was their brother, and he owes it to them and [to those of us] trying to wrap our heads around it to start speaking up,” she says. “I’ve been underwhelmed and upset by his actions and his lack of answers.”
Andrew loved his job, she says: “He would tell me, as he laced up his boots every day, ‘They tell me jump, I say, ‘How high.’ I love this community and love serving them with all I’ve got.'”
She goes on: “Yet [forestry officials] continually spit upon them and the work they did by hiding the truth and defaming their character with suggestions that ‘we’ll never know why they chose to drop into that canyon.’
© Copyright 2015 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA