Harrell’s service at firefighter funerals harrowing, but also an honor

July 20, 2013

When he got the call that the Missouri Fire Service Funeral Assistance Team had been requested to help with services for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters that were killed in a wildfire in Prescott, Ariz., on June 30, Sedalia Fire Department Deputy Chief knew it was going to be a difficult time.

For nearly a week straight, Harrell and his fellow assistance team members slept little, ate when they had a few minutes to spare, and helped plan and organize 12 burials. One of the hardest days, he said, was July 10 — there were five burials scheduled — but the funeral that affected him the most happened a few days later.

“Hotshots don’t quit the team,” he said. “These are the elite wildfire firefighters; they’re trained to be tough. There had only been four hotshots that left, for one reason or another, in the past few years. We were doing cemetery detail on a funeral, and the four hotshots and the only survivor of the crew that was killed, a kid that’s only 21, were acting as pallbearers.”

According to Harrell, the firefighter who died was cremated and wanted his remains divided into 15 parts, one to be buried in Prescott and the others to be spread in the areas where he had fought 14 other major wildfires. Toward the end of the service, the five hotshot crew members used pulaskis — a special tool used for fighting wildfires — and dug a trench between two grave sites.

“They got on their knees and poured the remains into the trench and then covered it with their hands,” Harrell said. “One of the guys had a bottle of beer with him, a special Arizona beer the (fallen firefighter) liked. They all took a sip and poured a little on the grave, which is a firefighter tradition, and then wedged the bottle into the dirt.

“Any funeral for a fallen brother is going to be hard. But that was the toughest of all. We cried a lot that day.”

‘It’s my honor to be here’

When Harrell and the rest of the assistance team crew arrived in Prescott, it was immediately all hands on deck, he said.

“We were set up at the high school and I don’t think we even had time to put our bags in our motel rooms before we were being called to the command center,” he said. “There were 150 people working 6 a.m. to midnight, trying to set everything up, acting as liaisons with the families, planning services and the memorial. We were busy constantly.”

The Missouri team was assigned to cemetery detail for 12 of the 19 funerals — including the first, last and biggest funerals Harrell said — and were helped by the Tucson-based Ironwood Hotshots.

“They were there to help us with labor, basically,” Harrell said. “These guys are tough. During the week we were there they would strap on 50-pound packs and go for five-mile runs to keep in shape. But they’re kids, really; most hotshots are in their early 20s. They’re serious, though, and very disciplined. Most people probably don’t realize there’s a lot of difference between us structure (fire) guys and wildfire guys, different terminology, different training. I think both crews learned a lot from each other and by the end of the week they were joking around with us.”

Each day in Prescott would start with a briefing: what was expected, if there was funeral that day what the schedule was, what equipment needed to be brought in. Often Harrell would only get a few hours’ rest the night before and was eating on the run.

“Breakfast was the only hot meal we could count on because it was served at the hotel. If we had time for lunch or dinner, which sometimes we didn’t, it was American Red Cross sandwiches,” he said. “Earlier in the week this couple that owned a barbecue place came in and offered to help us anyway they could. Well, on Friday there were a bunch of us and we decided we needed to get a real, sit-down meal. By the time we got to their restaurant it was closed, but they opened it up and served us, told us to stay as long we needed. Turns out the owners are from Webster Groves (Mo.) and one of our crew guys lives near there too.

“It’s hard to explain how well the town treated us.”

Harrell said people would often stop their trucks at stoplights, thanking them for their service and assisting with the funerals. Total strangers would offer hugs and condolences, often with tears in their eyes. Even a late-night Walmart run turned into an opportunity for the townspeople to thank Harrell and his crew when they let them skip the lines so they could get back to the command center.

“They were so generous,” he said. “The whole town came together for this terrible tragedy and they were so grateful that we were there to help. I had to keep telling them, ‘It’s my honor to be here.’ ”

Bringing the brothers home

While thousands of people attended the public memorial service for the fallen hotshots, the burials were strictly for family and friends. As part of the cemetery detail, Harrell and his fellow team members had the job of making sure each funeral went as planned.

“The day we had five funerals, June 10, that was hard,” he said. “A firefighter funeral has a lot of tradition, including the last alarm bells, and things that have to be set up. So we would only have a short amount of time between each funeral to get ready for the next. The (cemetery crews) had dug all five graves the day before and see them all there open, ready for the caskets, it really hit me.”

After a funeral crews wouldn’t have time to immediately bury the casket, so the hole would be covered with plywood and woodchips until after all the funerals were finished for the day. The Ironwood Hotshot crew were an immense help, Harrell said.

“It’s Arizona, it’s hot and dry and dusty and there’s no grass anywhere in this cemetery,” he said. “So the chairs that were set up would get dirty pretty quickly. After each service the hotshots would be there, wiping everything down with bottled water and towels, and raking the grave sites so they looked nice. You didn’t even have to ask them and they’d be up running for whatever you needed.”

Harrell said he also learned hotshot traditions, some of which are unique to wildland firefighters.

“During a procession the hotshots line the funeral route, but they face outward, away from the engine that’s carrying the casket,” he said. “I asked one of the guys why and he told me because when you’re fighting wildfires, you’re always watching out to protect your brothers. When they line the route they face away, watching the fireline to protect their brother.”

On the last day in town, most of the volunteers gathered at the Prescott courthouse square to retire the colors, which were given to the hotshot chief, and were formally dismissed.

“The Forestry Service took over from that point and told us we had completed the task, all 19 brothers were brought home and now it was time for us to go home,” Harrell said. “I’ve always thought a lot of hotshots, respected them, but now after getting to know the Ironwood guys and being part of the funerals, even more so.

“I would never want to do it again, but it was such an honor. I’m very grateful I got to be part of it.”