Bill Gabbert sat down with Brendon McDonough and Miles Teller the day of the red carpet screening in Phoenix of “Only the Brave”, which is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In 2013, 19 members of the crew perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.
Mr. McDonough was the only member of the 20-person crew to survive. Miles Teller played him in the movie.
The film about the Granite Mountain Hotshots is set to begin production on Monday, and will attempt to tell the story of the 20-person crew of wildland firefighters that were all killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 except for one survivor, Brendan McDonough.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has hired a very impressive cast including Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell, Jennifer Connelly, and Taylor Kitsch. (IMDB has a full list of the cast.)
Below is an excerpt from an AP article:
The producers behind a movie about the elite firefighting team that lost 19 members in a 2013 Arizona wildfire assure the story focuses on the firefighters’ dedication, not the way in which they died.
The movie will be filming in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and several other cities in New Mexico through early September. It is slated to open in theaters in September 2017.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said the plot will focus on Eric Marsh, who led the crew, and Brendan McDonough, the only surviving hotshot crew member. He said it will not focus on tragedy or the exact details of the fire.
“This movie is about the lives of these people and what they were trying to put on the line, and what it meant to them to do what they were doing and what it meant to the community to have them doing it,” he said.
Brolin will play Marsh, who was superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, with Connolly playing his wife, Amanda Marsh.
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.
It has been two years since Brendan McDonough lost his 19-member firefighter family. On June 30, 2013 the Yarnell Hill Fire claimed their lives when a firestorm roared through brush 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, leaving McDonough the only survivor of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.
The day before, he had been sent home sick by Jesse Steed, Captain and second in command of the crew. The next day on the fire near Yarnell, Steed, as the acting Superintendent may have thought that McDonough was not quite 100 percent recovered when he assigned him to serve as a lookout for the crew – staying in one spot observing the fire, taking weather observations, and updating the rest of the crew on the status of the fire and where it was in relation to their location.
As the other 19 firefighters inexplicably left the safety of an already burned area and hiked through unburned brush toward a ranch – previously identified as a safe place – a sudden wind shift turned the fire in their direction. Pushed by strong winds created by a passing thunderstorm, the fire burned over the crew, killing them all, even though they sought protection inside their emergency fire shelters.
McDonough, in a different location, escaped uninjured after getting a ride out of the area in autility task vehicle (UTV) driven by a firefighter from another hotshot crew.
He now lives in Prescott, Arizona with his girlfriend, his four-year-old daughter, and the girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. He likes Prescott, he says, but acknowledges that it’s tough for him to live there. “Every sticker, every shirt, every corner is a memory,” he says. “But Prescott is such a loving town that I couldn’t leave. I’m really rooted here; I love it here.”
HIRED ON WITH THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOT CREW
McDonough was not a first-round pick when he was hired on with the crew. “Three guys washed out,” he says, “Eric Marsh told me, ‘If you can keep up, we’ll keep you.’”
“The hotshot crew was the best thing that ever happened to me. It saved my life. I probably would have continued doing drugs, I probably would have ended up in prison or with an overdose – or dead. I was a dad before I got hired. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t support my daughter, because no one wanted to hire a felon. I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s flipping burgers. It was a dark period in my life.”
McDonough says he’s thankful for the others on the crew who taught him about being both a dad and a hotshot. “They taught me all they knew, and they also taught me how to be a man, a well-rounded man. Family life. That’s what the brotherhood is really about.”
“That is what I lost that day,” he adds. “Not just a hotshot crew or nineteen fire brothers. I lost my family.”
Superintendent Eric Marsh had been assigned as Division Supervisor that day, in charge of the part of the fire that included the Granite Mountain crew, temporarily supervised by Steed. When the fire shifted and moved toward McDonough, the rate of spread increased dramatically. “Hey, it’s about time for you to get out of there,” said Steed over the radio. McDonough agreed.
He said his evacuation from the area was a close call but not chaotic. Walking out, he met up with a member of the Blue Ridge Hotshots, who gave him a ride out.
Do you know why the crew left the safety of a previously burned “black” area and decided to walk through unburned brush toward the ranch?
Some of the families of the deceased Granite Mountain Hotshots settled their lawsuit the day before the second anniversary of that tragic day. On June 29 the families of 12 of the crewmembers settled a wrongful-death suit for $50,000 each along with some reforms they hope will help to prevent similar catastrophes. Two years ago today 19 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona when they were entrapped and overrun by a wildfire that later burned into the community of Yarnell, destroying 127 structures.
The resolution was announced Monday at a news conference. In addition to the $50,000 for each of 12 families, the state of Arizona will give $10,000 to each of the seven families that did not participate in the lawsuit.
The settlement also stipulates that the state will make a “good faith effort” to implement reforms suggested by the families of the hotshots, but their implementation is not binding and will be up to the sole discretion of the agency director.
The state Forestry Division will ask the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to do a question-and-answer session and a staff ride so that firefighters can better understand what happened that day two years ago.
The state will recommend additional training for initial attack of new fires.
State Forestry will volunteer to participate as a testing site for new wildfire technology, including radios and GPS tracking devices. One of the issues on the Yarnell Hill Fire was that it is possible that few if any other firefighters on the fire were aware of the location of the crew and the danger that they were in.
The $220 million lawsuit was settled for a total of $670,000, plus the “good faith” concessions.
The agreement occurred without any testimony from Brendan McDonough, the only survivor from the 20-person crew. Attorneys for State Forestry repeatedly sought his information about the fire under oath, but a deposition never occurred. Mr. McDonough has said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder since the fire.
At the time of the fatalities he was in a different location serving as a lookout, providing intelligence to the crew about the location of the fire. The largest remaining question about the Yarnell Hill Fire is why the 19 firefighters left the safety of a previously burned area and hiked through unburned brush where they were overrun by the fire. Nothing in the two official reports shed any light on this important question.
An article in the April 3 edition of the Arizona Republic includes information that was previously unknown to the public. The newspaper reported that Mr. McDonough overheard a radio conversation between the Division Supervisor, Eric Marsh, and Jesse Steed who was temporarily serving as the Hotshots’ crew boss. Supposedly Mr. Marsh who normally was the Crew Boss or Superintendent of the crew, told Mr. Steed to have the crew leave the safety zone and to join him at a ranch.
The question of why the crew was in that location may never be answered, unless Mr. McDonough elaborates on the issue in the book he is working on. In April it was announced that he signed a deal with New York Times bestselling author Stephan Talty to write “the untold story from the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire”.
Below is an excerpt from a June 29, 2015 article in the Arizona Republic:
Attorney Pat McGroder said the goal of the 12 families was to prevent future tragedies and improve wildland-firefighting safety. He emphasized they were not out to make money and said the minimal compensation and promised firefighting improvements underscore that point.
McGroder had strong words for the federal government, which banned the Blue Ridge Hotshots from talking publicly about what they may have heard over the radios that day.
“At sometime, Mr. McDonough may or may not choose to publicly describe what he saw, what he heard that day,” McGroder said. “The idea that the federal government is withholding information … speaks to the lack of understanding and empathy that they should have for these families. So, we would publicly call for … the national Forest Service to let their people talk.”
The Republic is reporting that the only survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots will be questioned under oath later this month. This will be the first time that Brendan McDonough, who was serving as a lookout when the other 19 members of the crew were entrapped by fire and killed in 2013, will undergo a sworn deposition.
The testimony may provide more information about why the crew left the safety of a previously burned area on the Yarnell Hill Fire and walked through unburned brush where they were overrun by the fire. The deposition is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 28 at a Phoenix law office.
As we wrote on April 4, an article in the April 3 edition of the Arizona Republic included information that was previously unknown to the public. The publication reported that Mr. McDonough who was serving as a lookout away from the crew during the tragedy, overheard a radio conversation between the Division Supervisor, Eric Marsh, and Jesse Steed who was temporarily serving as the Hotshots’ crew boss. Supposedly Mr. Marsh who normally was the Crew Boss or Superintendent of the crew, told Mr. Steed to have the crew leave the safety zone and to join him at a ranch.