In Arizona, a solemn 100-mile procession for fallen firefighters

Posted at 5:11 PM, Jul 07, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-07 19:11:16-04

By Nick Valencia and Emanuella Grinberg

(CNN) -- The bodies of 19 Arizona firefighters killed in a wildfire went home Sunday in a somber procession of more than 100 miles across the state.

White hearses flying American flags carried the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots from the State Capitol in Phoenix to their hometown of Prescott, passing through the community where they died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.

People from across the state and around the country gathered along the route of the public procession, withstanding triple-digit temperatures to pay respects to the elite wildfire-fighting crew.

"These men are heroes. They've earned the respect of everyone in this line," an onlooker told CNN affiliate KTVK as he awaited the procession in Phoenix.

Just one member of the elite 20-man wildfire-fighting crew survived the Yarnell Hill Fire, which started June 28 and spread to more than 6,000 acres in two days. The incident, part of a fire that destroyed more than 100 homes, was the deadliest day for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks.

As of Sunday, at least 90% of the fire had been contained, officials said. Residents who were forced to evacuate Yarnell and Peeples Valley will be permitted to return to their homes at 9 a.m. Monday morning, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Emergency Management office said.

Hotshot crews are called to get close to the blaze, dig barriers and clear out the brush and other material that otherwise would fuel it. Erratic winds were blamed on the sudden shift in the fire's direction that trapped the group. The deaths are under investigation, but officials have said it appears the 19 were forced to lie down under blankets meant to protect against flames and heat as a last resort against an inferno that overwhelmed them.

The procession of hearses and police motorcycles passed through Yarnell on its way to Prescott, where they will be honored in a memorial service Tuesday that Vice President Joe Biden is expected to attend.

The firefighters left behind wives and children. One firefighter left behind his pregnant fiance.

"I feel for the people they left behind," an observer of the procession in Phoenix told KTVK. "There's a story behind each family. The more I hear, the more sad it makes me."

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Related story: Family of fallen firefighter speaks after Yarnell Hill fire tragedy