PRESCOTT, Ariz. A three-month investigation into the June deaths of 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona blaze cited poor communication between the men and support staff, and revealed that an airtanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the firefighters died.
The 120-page report released Saturday found that proper procedure was followed and assigned little blame for the worst firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.
All but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew died June 30 while protecting the small former gold rush town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, from an erratic, lightning-sparked wildfire. Hotshots are highly trained backcountry firefighters who hike deep into the brush to fight blazes.
While maintaining a neutral tone, the investigation cited badly programmed radios, vague updates, and a 33-minute communication blackout just before the flames engulfed the men. Though the report points to multiple failures, investigators did not consider whether the deaths could have been avoided, raising questions about what lessons firefighters can take from the tragedy.
"These guys were doing what they were trained to do, and doing it well. But mother nature wins," Jeff Berino, an incident commander in Colorado who has also worked as a fire investigator, said during a media briefing in Prescott, where all of the fallen firefighters lived.
Some family members were angered that the report didn't draw stronger conclusions about why the men died and recommend changes. David Turbyfill interrupted the news conference to shame officials for not providing his 27-year-old son Travis with the protection he needed to survive as the flames swept over him. He said the shelter Travis died in had not been improved in 13 years.
"This report is fairly conclusive that the fire shelters are a total disaster. Policies, as they may be, need to change," he said.
His wife, Shari, begged the panel to move more quickly to correct the problems that contributed to her stepson's death.
"Your protection of us is killing us," she said. "We're willing to take the heat right now, but I don't want another family to deal with this. Help us, I implore you. Help us. Give us the information we need to change this. It is so necessary, please."