Prescott, Ariz., welcomes Granite Mountain Hotshots home

Hearses carrying the bodies of 19 firefighters killed last week arrive in Prescott, Ariz., on Sunday during a procession that started in Phoenix. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times /July 7, 2013)

By Rick Rojas

Los Angeles Times

PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- They waited hours in 100-degree heat, waving American flags, purple balloons and signs with messages from a community that vowed never to forget the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their sacrifice.

The bodies of 19 firefighters killed combating the Yarnell Hill blaze that burned through nearly 8,400 acres in central-west Arizona had been released from the Maricopa County medical examiner's office in Phoenix on Sunday. Crowds gathered to honor them along the way and welcome them home.

Spectators who had been talking, sitting on rocks and licking ice cream cones began pushing their way to the edge of the sidewalk as a stream of police cars and motorcycles materialized around a bend. Then came 19 white hearses, each with the name of the firefighter it carried printed on a placard in a window.

Some clapped as the procession made its way through. Others held signs: "God Bless Our Firefighters." "They will never be forgotten." "Thank you. We love you."

On one corner, someone had placed 19 white crosses shrouded in a gauzy purple fabric. Down the street, someone released 19 purple balloons.

"Here, everyone feels the pain in the loss of these lives," said Rayna Yoss, a native of San Pedro who retired to Prescott in 2010.

The procession cut through scrubby desert terrain and small towns. It stopped close to the place in Yarnell where the fast-moving blaze overran the firefighters on June 30.

In Prescott, where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were based, hundreds of people lined the route. Many arrived hours early.

"It's not just about Prescott; everyone feels this sense of loss," said Kathleen Baird, 59, who moved to Prescott nearly a year ago. "It's still this disbelief almost. ... You can't wrap your head all around it."

Laurie McCoy, 59, said the procession was an opportunity where "you can show some respect and gratitude."

On Sunday, as in the days after the firefighters' death, talk has centered on the community's resolve and how the residents are pulling through a tragedy. But McCoy echoed a message she heard in church services earlier in the day: "We can't be in this for the short run. We have be in this for the long run."

Baird nodded.

"This is something that has to last," McCoy said.