Above: Most, but not all, of the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots at the world’s largest alligator juniper tree in 2013. The crew protected it while fighting the Doce Fire near Prescott, Arizona about two weeks before the tragedy at Yarnell. Photo by Chris Mackenzie.
Last August I interviewed Brendan McDonough, the only firefighter of the 20-person Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that survived the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona in June, 2013
He told me that he was working on a book about his life – his background, drug problems, burglary conviction, and becoming a father at age 19. “That’s what I’m saying in the book,” he said. “I’m sharing the stories and the great memories I have of them, and I’m telling my stories about Yarnell – what I saw, how I felt, and what I think happened.”
He said working on the book was therapeutic for him, collaborating with best-selling author Stephan Talty, author of A Captain’s Duty about Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama that was captured by Somali pirates and later rescued by Navy SEALs.
My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor, is scheduled for release on May 3, 2016 but may be available before that in bookstores. After reading an advance copy, I found it to be an extremely personal account of Mr. McDonough’s life before becoming a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, his experiences while on the crew for three seasons, and how he dealt with the tragedy — the fire that killed 19 of his “brothers” on June 30, 2013.
The 20 men were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona, 90 miles northwest of Phoenix that day. A passing thunderstorm created very strong outflow winds that suddenly changed the direction the fire was spreading, forcing it to make a right turn. The fire raced toward 19 men on the crew, trapping and killing them in a box canyon. Mr. McDonough survived because he was serving as a lookout in a location separate from the others. He also had a close call as the blaze burned toward him, but was rescued by the crew Superintendent on another Hotshot crew who gave him a ride out of danger on a small utility vehicle.
I was hoping that the book would reveal more about WHY the 19 men left the safety of a previously burned area (the “black”) and hiked cross-country through dense unburned brush where they were entrapped by the fire. That is a crucial piece of the puzzle not yet revealed to the public. A piece that could add to the body of knowledge about firefighting that could be a valuable lesson learned — possibly preventing similar fatalities.
But a clue was in our interview eight months ago when he said:
I would never … if my brothers did make mistakes, I would never keep that a secret to put in a book. There’s nothing that is going to be in there that people don’t already know.
And he was true to his word. While he revealed a great deal about his private life, there is little about what happened on June 30, 2013 that has not already come out in the investigations, reports, and the video recordings made by various firefighters that day that included audio of radios used by firefighters. While there are many quotes of radio conversations in the book, most of them appear to have been previously revealed in the recordings. There are no earth-shaking revelations about who made the crucial decisions, or why, that led to the Granite Mountain Hotshots being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mr. McDonough wrote in the book:
I had no idea they had moved out of the black. Neither did anyone else. The focus was on saving Yarnell and not getting burned up ourselves.
There are some interesting details that perhaps were not widely known. For example after it became clear that the 19 men deployed their small folding shelters that were supposed to protect them from the fire, and then no longer responded to radio calls, someone asked Mr. McDonough: “Can you give me the names of everyone with them?”
He then began to recite the names of his brothers.
Later that evening a fire chief from the Prescott Fire Department offered to give him a ride from the fire back to Prescott where the crew was based, about an hour away. As they were preparing to leave, the chief received a call on his cell phone saying the families of the crew were gathering at a school in the town. He told the chief he wanted to go there.
From the book:
We pulled up in front of the school and got out. I was dreading what was coming but I felt I had to be there. If I could help even one family member just a little bit, it would be worth it. My feelings were beside the point. I knew if something had happened to me, Chris and Eric and Travis would have done anything for my family.
I walked in. There was a buzz of conversation and I heard it dip. I saw a couple of guys I knew, guys I’d worked with. On their faces I could see bewilderment. They looked at me and I heard them through the buzz. “Dude. I am so sorry”. “Brendan, are you okay?”
What could I say? It was embarrassing to be getting anyone’s sympathy. I wasn’t hurt. I had no wounds on me; my yellows weren’t singed by smoke. I almost wished I had some injury that would have shown that I tried to save the guys. But there was nothing. I was obscenely healthy.
The tears came again. Then I saw a family member — one of the mothers — approaching. She took my arm and held it gently.
“Brendan, what happened?” she said.
I was shell-shocked. A black wave of guilt washed over me.
“I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened.”
More family members gathered around. I could guess what they wanted to hear. Specifics. “It was a fluke gust” or “The radios were out.” But there was no one factor to point to.
I spent the evening at the school, hugging the wives and sisters and daughters and the brothers and fathers and uncles. I felt the urge to leave, to run away and go to my mom’s house and curl up on my bed. Turn off the lights. But my place was here with the families.
Seven days after the tragedy he went to Phoenix to retrieve the remains of the firefighters at the mortuary to escort them back to Prescott. On the way back he was part of the procession of 19 white hearses and many other vehicles. He was riding in the Granite Mountain Superintendent’s truck with two Chiefs from the Prescott Fire Department, Darrell Willis and Ralph Lucas. When they saw the parents of Travis Carter, one of the deceased hotshots, standing by the road in front of their home, the three men stopped, got out, and hugged Mr. Carter’s dad.
After the hearses arrived at the mortuary in Prescott, Mr. McDonough helped unload the bodies. He was surprised that they were not in caskets, but to his shock, they were in orange body bags. One at a time a hearse would pull up to the facility, a voice would call out the name of the firefighter, and then would be carried into the mortuary freezer.
He wrote that he felt it was his job to attended every funeral and memorial service that he could. He also submitted to interviews, hoping to protect the firefighters’ moms, dads, and children who would become more of the reporters’ targets if he did not step up.
About a year after the accident Mr. McDonough had thoughts of suicide. After dropping off his daughter with his ex-wife and driving back to Prescott, he stopped, and took a loaded nine-millimeter handgun from the glove compartment. He held it in his hand while memories of what he heard and saw that day near Yarnell flooded through his mind. Then he thought about his daughter and what the families of the 19 would have to go through all over again if they had to deal with a 20th fatality.
He unloaded the gun and threw it in the back seat.
When he attended the annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial service he ran into a therapist from Phoenix that he had met earlier. She “had a calmness about her”, and asked him how he was doing. After assuring him that she really wanted to know, he unloaded his feelings for about half an hour while she nodded and held his gaze.
Within a week, I was in counseling with a therapist [she] found for me in Prescott. It saved my life.
The book is a good read. Most wildland firefighters, and even the general public, will find it interesting. It is well written and has few passages that could not keep my interest. Even the first part about the early years of Mr. McConough’s life when he did not have a father in his life and his mother kept them moving from place to place, was worthwhile. Partly because of his checkered life style, the heavy use of drugs, and later becoming a drug dealer. Considering everything he went through, it is not surprising that he had some major issues. The uplifting part of the story is how being on the Hotshots, and especially having the influence and support of Superintendent Eric Marsh and others on the crew, turned his life around. It is an excellent example of how some structure, discipline, and a surrogate father figure can make a difference in someone’s life. Mr. Marsh, perhaps seeing some of himself in Mr. McDonough, found a way to hire him in spite of a felony conviction for burglary.
At the end of the book Mr. McDonough makes two recommendations about managing wildland fires. One is for firefighters to have tracking systems so that supervisors can know where their personnel are.
The other is a wildland firefighters’ union. He wrote:
It’s time for a union that will fight for what wildland firefighters need in order to do their job. Better pay. Better working conditions. More resources. And, most important of all, improved safety.
This book is in contrast to the other one about the Yarnell Hill Fire released a year ago, Kyle Dickman’s On the Burning Edge. I slogged through the first 100 pages and could not finish it.
Recently Mr. McDonough said this about the book:
I just want to raise awareness of what wildland firefighters do and the struggles they face, to share my story of PTSD and how I got help and how much it has impacted my life. It’s not my place to try and change the way we fight fire but I will always stand behind the community for getting more resources, better technology and an organization to stick up for them on the line, after an injury, or from a fatal incident.
“My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor” is published by Hachette, Price $27 for the hardcover, $13.99 for the ebook.