From Bill: June 30 marked the seventh year since 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Words can’t express how meaningful that event was — and still is — to the firefighting community. Our hearts go out to the friends and family members of the 19 firefighters.
With a different perspective on the impacts, we have an article published on Devon Herrera’s blog Coffee With a Question. Much of it is in the words of Taylor Caldwell, the sister of one of the Hotshots, Robert Caldwell.
When I got a message from Taylor informing me she was ready to tell her story but needed help telling it, I was excited, then honored, then extremely intimidated, not only because I’d known and loved her brother since elementary school, but because the Yarnell fire that took 19 hotshots will forever be etched into Prescott’s history, and in our hearts.
“I just think it’s time,” she said. “The seven-year anniversary is coming up and I want to honor him.”
That’s right… seven years. I cannot believe it’s been seven years since the tragedy that would ultimately pull our community back together.
I told Taylor we would schedule a time to interview her, but she wanted to do things a little more unconventionally… I always admired her trailblazing spirit.
“So, I’ll probably talk your ear off for hours if we’re on the phone; do you think I can just record myself and send it to you?” she asked.
I’m all about collaborating in new ways, so of course, I didn’t think twice about it; this is Taylor’s story, after all, and I’m just privileged to be a vessel to share it with you.
So, without further ado…
“We called Robert, Buggy or Bug Man; he was born right outside of Pennsylvania on August 7th, 1989 – we were exactly 2.5 years apart and because of this, we always got a kick out of wishing each other a happy half birthday. My brother had the most infectious smile and laugh, which I can still hear to this day,” I watched her smile as she thought of it.
She explained how they would consider themselves best friends before siblings; that they did everything together.
“Robert helped our dad build a cabin out in Colorado when we were super young; he was always so good at putting things together… so active and wild, always living outside the lines. At a certain point, my dad took him bird hunting, then fly fishing just to try and keep him away from trouble. The attempt at sports was short lived… he was absolutely terrible… seriously, my dad tried to get him into everything, but he had about zero coordination.”
Our laughs hummed at the same time before I shared a story about Robert doing flips off the fence at our elementary school; he was always down for a dare. Oh, and yes, if you’re confused about how I’m chiming in now, we’ve incorporated an actual interview into this piece, to make sure we deliver the desired message.
Back to scheduled programming –
“You know something funny?” Taylor offered, “Robert had three dogs throughout his life, and he named each of them Hunter.”
“Easier to remember that way, I suppose. I’m sure more people wish it was that smooth when they transitioned relationships,” she raised her eyebrows as if to say, ‘you’re tellin’ me’ then repositioned her phone on the dining table.
“Something I don’t think a lot of people would know about my brother was his love of books. He was always, always reading. I actually have the book he was reading before he died… let me go grab it,” she got up and walked to her kitchen, coming back to show me a copy of ‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis – the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She told me he was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, too; so much so that a lady in Maryland sent over an original copy of one of his books after he passed. It was called Farewell To Arms.”
“Maryland?” I asked…
“Yeah, my dad had a boat in Salisbury, Maryland and Robert would go live on it during the off season; he’d drive around town in my dad’s Porsche. I’m actually pretty surprised he didn’t total it, like this truck he and his friends flipped when they were 14. But again, as crazy as he was, and as much trouble as he caused, he cared so much about people. Oh, and he loved a theme party… any chance to dress up, he was in. It’s why we have our annual Bob-A-Palooza now… celebrating him just as he would want it.”
I smiled, recalling the time he helped me get ready at his house… I actually don’t even think we were going to a theme party, but he wanted me to dress up with him, so I did, and he even helped with my hair.
“As you could’ve guessed, Robert absolutely hated school. He had a mechanical mind so he wanted to be more hands on; he could fix just about anything which came in handy when the check engine light went off. So, I wasn’t surprised when he said he wanted to be a hotshot; he explained to me that he wanted to help people. He always wanted to help people… he had so much empathy. I remember when I came out as gay, Robert was my biggest advocate. He cried because he knew what a burden it must’ve been on me; he showered me with every bit of love, making sure I knew how much he supported me,” she fondly remembered while briefly looking down.
“Robert would always send me crazy pictures while he was out with his crew; pictures that didn’t even seem real, like the slurry bombers. He’d send me videos of him with the boys; they’d always play pranks and I could tell how deeply each of them loved each other. I also remember the picture he sent me of his burnt boots; it was the fire right before Yarnell. ‘T, look… I got so close, my boots melted,’ he wrote, and he truly wasn’t scared; he was more annoyed with the inconvenience of having to get new boots,” we both laughed again.
Before we move on with Taylor’s story, we have a special snippet from Robert’s best friend, Thomas Holst, who was generous enough to sit down and share his memories and perspective.
Tom met Robert when he was four, maybe five, at Christian Academy.
“Me, Robert, and Dustin were all in the same class,” he told Taylor, sitting across from her with a Corona in hand, in Taylor’s backyard which was adorned with a string of lights and a line of thick trees. “I remember being picked up in your mom’s red Suburban, or whatever that thing was, and sleeping over all the time,” he recalled with a smile, leaning back in his chair. His black baseball hat was a touch unconventional, both with the shape, and with the fact that there wasn’t a team logo… just a red ‘T’ sitting on top of what looked to be a mountain. His fitted black and white tee-shirt was reminiscent of a newspaper, which I thought felt very topical.
“We were apart for three years until I got to Taylor Hicks in third grade. Robert was the only person I knew, which was enough,’ he held briefly as if to reassure himself. “We were such shitty kids,” he laughed, almost hesitating to go on. “When there was road construction, we’d change all the traffic cones and move the signs around so people wouldn’t know how to get through. We’d put off fire works at the elementary school and TP houses… you know, super juvenile shit,” he noted, sipping his beer before another thought entered, still leaning back in the cushioned chair. “Oh, I remember one time, your dad asked if we wanted to see this new movie… he said he’d take us if we pulled the weeds in the backyard. We always found the most efficient way to do things,” he started smirking, “so instead of pulling them out, we lit them all on fire which immediately got out of control,” his laughter overtook the story briefly as he sat forward, “yeah, so we’re jumping on the fire, trying to put it out… our shoes are melted; I remember Robert ran to get a hose and the tree suddenly caught fire…” he trailed off, “needless to say, we didn’t get to see the movie.”
He talked about their times frequently spent at Slide Rock before Taylor asked what her brother shared about his time as a Hotshot.
“When he got his first job on a crew, after finishing the fire academy, I remember his bag and boots sat at the foot of his bed; he was so eager to fulfill his duty.”
“Yeah,” Taylor responded across from him. “You lived with him, right across the hall.”
“Yep. There were a couple of false calls to start, so he’d come back later in the day, kind of down, telling me there wasn’t actually a fire. When his first actual call came in, he was so excited…” he started remembering another story as a smile formed; his arm lifted from the back of the chair. “He called me at my house one day; this was much later on… he’d been promoted to squad boss and couldn’t wait to share the news, not only with me, but with my dad,” he was practically beaming at this point. “I remember he talked to my dad about money and benefits and just how proud of a moment it was.”
He reminisced about the pictures they would send back and forth, as Tom was on tour and Robert was on a ridge line somewhere.
“He just had an incredible way of making people feel comfortable and welcome. I don’t want to romanticize it, but he was genuinely excitable. He had a lot of drive and knew what he wanted, and always saw it through. Meanwhile, I had trouble picking out a pair of socks in the morning,” he laughed. “We were so different, but in a way that was beneficial to each other. When we’d travel or go anywhere, he was social and made us welcome, while I’d figure out all the logistics.”
Though I didn’t have a close up of Tom’s face, his emotions were clear, which he confirmed by telling Taylor he’s done a lot to avoid talking about Robert, admitting it’s been excessively detrimental for his relationships.
“Lots of people from your group of friends have died, so this time must be even more taxing,” Taylor suggested.
“Yeah, I just went to Dustin’s funeral a few days ago…” he stopped to think. “Actually, after Robert died, I remember going to the ceremony at Tim’s Toyota Center. I was holding Robert’s American flag as we were escorted out through the side door; Dustin was standing in line with the firefighters,” his voice cracked and he paused again, “he [Dustin] stepped out of line and walked to the bus with me,” Tom concluded with tears in his eyes… “it’s just a bad deal.”
I desperately hoped talking this out was healing as he offered some final words.
“I don’t feel like woe is me, but I do feel guilty sometimes… that I’m still here and they’re not. Robert was just a really good person who knew what he wanted in life, he was doing it, and then it was taken from him. There’s just this emptiness that I don’t think will ever be filled. We had a connection where we wouldn’t have to say anything to each other… we’d just know.”
“If Robert were sitting here right now, what would you say to him?” Taylor asked.
“If Robert were sitting across from me now, I don’t know what I’d say to him, but I know I wouldn’t worry about it because it wouldn’t matter… it’d just be nice to talk to him.”
BACK TO TAYLOR
“On June 30th, I was at my Grandma’s house in Pennsylvania getting ready for bed. Once I climbed under the covers, I thought I should lull myself to sleep by scrolling through Facebook, as one does. I saw pictures of dogs, someone inevitably getting engaged, old friends with margaritas in hand… and then I saw it… I saw the post that made my stomach sink and sent shock waves throughout my body. ‘Huge fire being fought by the Granite Mountain Hotshots,’ it read,” she put her head in her hands for a moment and looked back up, “I just knew. I felt it in my gut… I didn’t call my immediate family right away because I didn’t want it to be true, so I called my aunt asking her to contact Robert’s wife…” she trailed off for a moment.
She explained that her cousin, Grant, was also in Yarnell, as he’d been in Robert’s crew for a year; he was saving up to go to school to become an EMT.
“My aunt called me back a few minutes later… ‘they’re gone,’ she told me, and I went numb. I didn’t even cry; I hung up and stared wide eyed at my computer while I booked a flight back to Arizona. I didn’t tell my Grandma what happened, I just sat there unable to move or process.”
She told me she saw her mom’s name flashing on her phone as it buzzed next to her.
“I ignored it because I knew what I was going to hear and I couldn’t take it, but she called again and I knew she would keep calling so I took a deep breath and picked up. ‘Something happened to Robert! Something happened to Robert!’ she was sobbing so heavily and I just broke; we would never be the same again. I laid in that bed all night thinking it couldn’t be real… then… there was news that one firefighter was alive, but they didn’t know who. For a brief moment, I had hope, then I realized Robert would never have left his friends, so chances were slim to none he survived.”
I wiped my eyes as I watched Taylor relive her most horrific moment.
“The next morning, at 5am, I walked to the train station in Philly. I remember sitting across from a man and watching him open a newspaper; the front page was dedicated to the 19 firefighters that died in Arizona. The texts started flooding in; I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I was so in shock. I didn’t even want to talk to my family because it would make it more real and I felt myself getting more and more anxious as I got closer to the house. There were firefighters and police officers standing around when I got there… food kept showing up… everyone’s phone kept going off… people were literally standing outside of our house wanting to take pictures. I’d never been so overwhelmed.”
I pictured the Caldwell’s home; the beautiful space I’d been to so many times growing up, always full of love and comfort and a case of Coors.
“I’ve never really liked the phrase, ‘I’m sorry’ because I think it requires action, or maybe because it’s just overused, but I kept hearing it over and over. And I know there’s no ‘right thing’ to say to someone in such deep pain but I just didn’t want to hear it. I’d never experienced any sort of tragedy in my life… my Grandpa died when I was pretty young and that’s all I knew about death,” she said matter of factly.
“I left the house and met a friend that flew into town to be with me; we went by the fire station then went downtown where someone quickly identified me as the sister to one of the fallen hotshots. ‘You don’t have to pay for a thing here,’ the doorman offered, and I definitely took him up on it; I’d say my alcohol spiral started right in that little saloon.”
As the bodies were taken down to Phoenix for funeral arrangements, people in Prescott were carefully curating a memorial near the fire station to honor their loved ones. The fence and sidewalk were covered in letters, signs, clothing, unopened beers, ribbons, flowers, American flags… it was a beautiful and heart wrenching scene.
“The funeral director said regardless of our decision to cremate Robert, it was important to bury a casket because he died in the line of duty; despite the fact that he wouldn’t have wanted anything flashy, I realized this needed to happen – I realized the massive impact he had on the community. From there, we were told all cars would have a formal escort back up to Prescott; that they’d be driving through the courthouse for a parade. There must’ve been tens of thousands of people. We were right under station six and we saw the boys’ names written on the side of each car… When Robert’s name slowly passed by, my mom collapsed to the ground and started screaming. That specific scream will be engraved in my memory forever. It was then that I realized I would have to be her support… me… without Robert… without my best friend.”
She paused, and I thought I saw a glimmer of a tear, but she kept trudging through.
“My grandma was adamant about seeing Robert and Grant’s bodies; another experience I’ll never forget. I mean, if it wasn’t bad enough, the funeral home was on Robert Rd. There were two honor guards at the front door; the funeral director came out to greet us, telling us the bodies would be pulled into the chapel on a gurney… that we could take our time with them. The steel cart came out, which he was on top of in a black body bag. We didn’t open it but I remember standing there for a while, then leaning down and whispering, ‘I love you.’”
With another visceral pause, I watched the experience consume her as she recalled the immense trauma that visit had on her; how much it impacted her mental state moving forward.
“I remember going to the ceremony at PHS and being escorted down to the lower lot, then down to the football field. There were thousands and thousands of people there; I felt hands grab me and people call my name from all directions. I was getting more overwhelmed by the second until finally I asked the officer to escort me out. I was shaking with anxiety… it was honestly just way, way too much,” she said.
I remembered how close everyone sat together to honor the fallen firefighters and watching the release of 19 purple balloons to close the service.
Speaking of service…
“My family wanted me to deliver a eulogy at Robert’s funeral which we had at Watson Lake…again, there were so many people; people I hadn’t seen in years. I didn’t write anything down… Robert wouldn’t have wanted that. Instead, I brought a Coors, offered a story or two and threw back the beer.” I remembered her chugging that Coors and thinking then, that’s exactly how she should’ve honored him.
“We were very conscious of where we’d spread his ashes, making sure each place signified something special in Robert’s heart. First, we went to the Phillies stadium… he was an avid fan… we spread some of his ashes across home plate. Then we went to the Eagles stadium and spread more across the field. We gave some to his best friend, Tom, so he could spread the ashes in different countries during his world tour.”
She explained how the community’s support continued to be special – the paintings, the shirts, the stickers, the photos in stores. But at a certain point, it all just felt so… heavy.
“So, I decided to move to California. I even enrolled in Santa Ana’s fire academy to try and finish what Robert started. At 27, I was the oldest person in the room and when the massive, buff professor named Jeff asked me why I was there, I told him the truth and watched tears come to his eyes as he offered his support. The academy was tough though, and Jeff quickly recognized I didn’t actually want to be a firefighter… but I also didn’t want to quit. After time, thought, and a weird experience involving toilet paper, I talked to my then girlfriend who helped me realize I needed to process my brother’s death in a healthier way.”
“At that point, I was pretty much drinking daily. I was numb to everything around me. I was taking meds to wake up, meds to go to sleep, to maintain… then I started abusing prescription medication because I needed to not feel anything. I continued abusing pills when I moved back to Prescott, but I knew I had to face what I’d run away from… that sooner or later, I’d have to try and fix myself. But, before that could happen, I started becoming addicted to women, busying myself with their problems and focusing my full attention on them, which didn’t work. I remember one girl actually asked, ‘when are you gonna not be sad anymore?’”
Taylor stretched her fingers through her rich brown hair as she explained the slew of tragedy that befell her in the years following Robert’s death. She lost friends to overdose, one of whom significantly helped her cope with the loss of her brother. She recalled how guilty she felt, sitting at that service, knowing what she was doing to herself; knowing her parents only had one child left.
“So, I decided I would start therapy and see a psychologist; it was a super slow process for me. I couldn’t find groups dedicated to losing siblings… but then this crazy thing happened. My best friend and business partner lost her sister; she died in a plane crash and she was suddenly in the ‘my sibling died’ group with me. For some reason, that event really pushed me to try and turn my life around.”
As mentioned earlier, Taylor was self-aware enough to recognize her ability to talk for a significant stretch of time, and she sure did. But everything she said was clear, honest and open, and towards the end, she continued to mention the word grace; she said it was important she allowed herself the grace to experience grief exactly how she needed to. She allows herself the grace to be sad on Robert’s birthday and her own, knowing she no longer has to sit with the lump in her stomach for long periods of time; her daily journaling and gratitude lists have also been instrumental in her self-care.
“I want to be clear that having a funeral often doesn’t mean closure… it can be when things really start taking off with grief. Everyone thinks there always has to be a solution for things, but sometimes, there’s just not one, because sometimes there’s irreparable damage which forces your life to change forever. But, I also believe it’s important not to let people make excuses for you… for a while I was that person who drank and abused pills excessively because her brother died. As much as that was true, that tired excuse could only last for so long before I was sick of living inside my own head.” She paused before continuing, “I think of life kind of like a platform… once you decide to change platforms, you enter a new mental state which is so powerful.”
I always love a good metaphor, so I commended her for the platform visualization before asking her to close with a final message, either to the readers or to Robert.
She didn’t miss a beat.
“Robert did so much for so many people; the stories I continue to hear about him, and his compassion remind me that he did what he intended on this earth. He died doing something he loved – protecting people… and he always said he’d rather die in his boots than live in a suit. Well, brother, you did it and I thank you every day for showing me the way to actually live. I love you forever.”