Convoy of white hearses return 19 fallen US firefighters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 3:35am

A solemn procession of 19 white hearses, carrying the remains of firefighters killed battling an Arizona bush fire, travelled to the crew's hometown of Prescott from Phoenix.

They were accompanied by police motorcycle outriders, as onlookers lined the route saluting and waving American flags in honour of the fallen men.

Pipers played a dirge and an honour guard of firefighters and police officers stood to attention as the caravan pulled slowly away from the Maricopa county medical examiner's office shortly after midday on Sunday.

The convoy passed under a large US flag suspended from crossed fire ladders over a street leading to the Arizona capitol flanked with fire trucks as it headed for Prescott Valley, about 160 kilometres north of Phoenix.

The firefighters were from the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots team. They perished when overtaken by flames southwest of Prescott on June 30.

"Knowing that they risked their lives and paid the ultimate sacrifice, it's an honour for us to be here and know that we are with them … They will not be alone," Captain Larry Nunez of the Phoenix Fire Department said outside the medical examiner's office.

Hundreds of residents, braving heat of 40 degrees Celsius, stood kerbside as the hearses passed, each bearing the name of a firefighter who lost his life.

"They gave up their lives to save other lives," said onlooker Richard Galaviz, his voice unsteady with emotion. "The least I can do is come here and pay my respects so that they can go back home and get rest."

The cortège passed through Yarnell, the tiny town the firemen lost their lives trying to protect, before heading on to their hometown of Prescott, where crowds filled the pavements.

The convoy's final destination was the Yavapai county medical examiner's office in Prescott Valley 16 kilometres east of Prescott.

The bush fire has blackened 3,400 hectares of hills and ravines since it was sparked by lightning on June 28. The fire was reported 90 per cent contained on Sunday.

US Vice-President Joe Biden is expected to attend a memorial service for the firefighters today at an arena in Prescott Valley, as well as firefighters from departments across the US.

The deaths marked the greatest loss of life from a US bush fire since at least 25 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles. Federal investigators are seeking reasons for the deaths. The crew was overcome when winds suddenly changed direction, with flames engulfing their position. Provisional findings are expected in early September.