PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- As the bodies of 19 firefighters were driven to a morgue for autopsies Monday, grief-stricken family members and residents here mourned the victims of Arizona's deadliest firefighting disaster, and officials struggled to control a wildfire that one official said is zero percent contained.
City officials said the men, all members of an elite local wildfire fighting unit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were preparing to protect a group of homes from flames when the fire exploded in the nearby town of Yarnell, trapping them.
Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall said his city of about 40,000 was consumed by grief, and Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said 20 percent of his firefighters are gone, a loss touching nearly all residents.
Arizona's Republican Gov. Janice Brewer, called the fire "the deadliest in Arizona state history," and the nation's worst in a wildfire since 29 firefighters died in Los Angeles' Griffith Park in 1933. "I said last night that my heart is breaking," she said, "I can't imagine how the families who knew these individuals feel."
In a statement, President Barack Obama called the men heroes, adding: "They were ... highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet."
The fire that took the lives of Prescott's finest firefighters continued to burn more than 8,000 acres, mostly out of control. Residents and fire officials said it was driven by fierce winds gusting up to 25 mph and moved erratically, razing at least 200 buildings.
John Marsh confirmed that one of the victims was his son, Eric, 43, a nature lover, hunter and fisherman who organized the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew eight years ago and served as superintendent. Mr. Marsh said he moved to Arizona five years ago to be closer to his only child. On Sunday, he heard on television that a crew was missing, and when it was named, he knew his son was gone. "It wasn't a good way to hear it," he said. Officials have since confirmed his fears. Eric left a wife, Amanda.
At least two crew members had followed in their fathers' firefighting footsteps.
Kevin Woyjeck, 21, used to accompany his dad, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, sometimes riding along. The firehouse was like a second home to him, said Keith Mora, an inspector for that agency. Outside a fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives, Mr. Mora said Monday: "He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I've seen at that age."
Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California's San Jacinto Valley, where father Michael was a former Moreno Valley Fire Department captain. An avid snowboarder, Chris MacKenzie joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department. Longtime friend Dav Fulford-Brown told The Riverside Press-Enterprise that Mr. MacKenzie was set to receive a promotion. He said his friend "lived life to the fullest ... and was fighting fire just like his dad."
Another victim, Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, grandmother Nancy Warneke told The Press-Enterprise.
And Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott as much for his part-time job at Bucky O'Neill Guns as for his Hotshot job. "I never heard a dirty word out of the guy," said local William O'Hara. "He was the kind of guy who, if he dated your daughter, you'd be OK with it. He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman."
Chief Fraijo said he did not know what factors had trapped the firefighters, who were discovered with their emergency tents, that helped fend off smoke and fire, deployed. Some of the dead were in the tents, some not. A 20th unit member survived because he was driving with supplies.
At least 200 firefighters also battled the blaze Sunday, and more were on their way. Hundreds of homes are threatened, roads closed, and residents urged to evacuate, Chief Fraijo said.
Hotshot units are comprised of 20 people who study the science of wildfires and train hard to fight them. "The nature of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people's experiences," a website said. The crews, whose name refers to being near the fire's hottest part, began in Southern California in the late 1940s. They earned a reputation over time as among the most elite and fearless firefighters.
Each of about 110 crews has a home base -- the Granite Mountain Hotshots team is part of the Prescott Fire Department -- and often are sent throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico to fight wildfires. They face environmental extremes, long hours, bad food and steep and rugged terrain. Running, hiking, core abdomen training and yoga are in the exercise regimen.
"I knew these folks," Chief Fraijo said. He called the team, which started in 2002, excellent, dedicated employees who stayed in shape and had veterans of numerous wildfires in the West,. "Typically, they have a safety zone," he said. "For whatever reason, they might not have made it [there]. I don't know."nation
Associated Press contributed.