Friends, family share stories of fallen Hotshots

Sep 28, 2013, 6:06 PM

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) – Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, were killed June 30 when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s. Here are the stories of those who died:



Andrew Ashcraft, 29, dreamed of being a firefighter since he was a boy, attended fire camps as a teenager and spent hours after classes in high school studying fire science. He joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2011 and was awarded rookie of the year honors that year. His stated objective in his resume for the city of Prescott was “to excel in the firefighting profession and build a career as a wildland fire specialist.”

Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots and remembered Ashcraft as a fitness-oriented student.

“He had some athletic ability in him, and he was a go-getter, too. You could pretty much see, from young freshman all the way, he was going to be physically active.”

Beneitone said athletic prowess was a must for the Hotshots. “That’s what it takes. You gotta be very physically fit, and you gotta like it, gotta like the hard work.”

Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, graduated from Prescott High School in 2003 where he met his wife. He and Juliann Ashcraft had four children _ Ryder, Shiloh, Tate Andrew and Choice _ whom he insisted on tucking into bed each night and leading in prayers.



Friends characterized Robert Caldwell, 23, as the smart man in the bunch.

It was Caldwell’s intelligence and know-how that got him appointed as a squad boss with the Hotshots.

“He was one of the smart guys in the crew who could get the weather, figure out the mathematics,” said Chase Madrid, who worked as a Hotshot for two years but sat this year out. “It was just natural for him.”

Caldwell’s cousin, Grant McKee, also was one of the Hotshots killed June 30, a devastating blow to their grandmother, Mary Hoffman.

Caldwell and his wife Claire had just gotten married in November, and he had a 5-year-old stepson. McKee was engaged to Leah Fine, a woman he met in Prescott and described as “an angel.”

“Both of these boys were only interested in having a family life,” said Caldwell’s aunt, Laurie McKee.

Caldwell’s family said he died with honor along with his brothers, his boots tight on his feet. He’d often say “I’d rather die in my boots than live in a suit.”

“Robert was the kind of man every man strives to be,” his wife said. “He was the husband every woman dreams of and a father a child could look up to.”



At Captain Crossfit, a gym near the firehouse where the Hotshots were stationed, Travis Carter was known as the strongest one on the crew _ but also the most humble.

“No one could beat him,” trainer Janine Pereira said. “But the thing about him was he would never brag about it. He would just kill everyone and then go and start helping someone else finish.”

Carter, 31, was famous for once holding a plank for 45 minutes, and he was notorious for making up brutal workouts.

The crew recently did a 5-mile run during wilderness training. He then made them go to Captain Crossfit in the afternoon for another hard workout.

“The other guys who came in here always said that even though he was in charge, he was always the first one at the fire, the first one in action,” Pereira said.

Carter also gained notoriety as a tailback on his high school football team in Dewey, where he scored 16 touchdowns his senior year and was named an all-state, all-conference player.

One of his favorite places was a fishing pond at his family’s ranch, where he worked alongside his father and his grandfather branding and shipping cattle and driving tractors.

He joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2009.



Dustin DeFord, 24, was a Baptist preacher’s son, but it was firefighting that captured his imagination.

At 18, he volunteered for the Carter County Rural Fire Department like his father did in his hometown of Ekalaka, Mont.

He graduated from Cornerstone Bible Institute in Hot Springs, S.D., three years ago, said his father, the Rev. Steve DeFord. He always believed God was his guiding force and could be seen reading his Bible daily.

On his Facebook page last year, he talked about wanting to find work in western Montana, but God instead moved him to Arizona. Immediately he worked to improve his skills on the climbing wall at a gym near the firehouse.

He liked to cliff jump and run “Spartan Race” obstacle courses, and he passed the physical test for the Granite Mountain crew in January 2012.

“He listened very well. He was very respectful,” said Tony Burris, a trainer at Captain Crossfit. “He kind of had a dry sense of humor.”

Another trainer, Janine Pereira, echoed that sentiment.

“You would say something to him, and he would respond with a crack, which was funny because he was so shy,” she said.

DeFord is survived by nine brothers and sisters, including a U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant who served in Afghanistan, an older brother who was fighting fire with a helicopter team in New Mexico and a younger brother on a Hotshot crew in Alaska.



An avid snowboarder, Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California’s San Jacinto Valley, where he was a 2001 graduate of Hemet High School and a former member of the town’s fire department. He joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department.

MacKenzie followed his father _ a former Moreno Valley Fire Department captain _ into firefighting.

His family and friends said he loved fighting wildfires because “it was a way to see the most beautiful country in America.”

MacKenzie spent four seasons working for a ski resort in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. He also served on a helicopter crew for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and as a Hotshot in the San Bernardino National Forest.

He applied for the Granite Mountain crew at the invitation of one of his former captains, Aaron Stevens.

His family said he was loved by everyone he knew and collected friendships like people collected shot glasses.



A native of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Eric Marsh was known for his cool head and “Southern gentleman” demeanor, even in the hairiest of situations

Other firefighting teams would rib him about his laid-back manner.

“Eric had this deep soothing voice that no matter how amped everyone around him got, he was able to stay real mellow. We’d be like, `Out west we gotta move a little faster, talk a little faster, Eric,'” said Marsh’s friend, Patrick Moore, superintendent of another Hotshot crew.

Marsh, 43, was an avid mountain biker who became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Appalachian State University. Marsh built the Granite Mountain Hotshots from nothing _ and died trying to protect the crew that friends say constituted his life’s work.

“Eric was 90 percent a Granite Mountain Hotshot, and the 10 percent was left for us,” his wife Amanda said at a July Fourth carnival after his death.

The Marshes had no children, and Eric Marsh himself was an only child.

During the offseason, he worked as an instructor, helping to train hundreds of Arizona firefighters. Marsh liked to say that working on the Hotshot crew “turned boys into men,” according to his family.

“He was a loving and caring son, and he was compassionate and concerned about the well-being of the crew members,” Marsh’s father, John, said. “He was concerned for them, not just in the fire. They were like his family.”



Grant McKee, 21, was training to be an emergency technician and only intended to work for with the Hotshots for the summer.

During EMT training, he would ask for extra shifts at the emergency room and would get them because his superiors liked him, said his mother, Laurie McKee.

“Grant was one of the most likable people you could ever meet,” she said. “Grant was friendly, he was outgoing. Everybody loved Grant.”

His giving nature also stuck out to his grandmother, Mary Hoffman. When Grant was younger, she’d ask where things were and he’d respond that someone else liked it so much that he gave it away.

“So on his birthday, I started to say, `I hope you’re going to keep this!” she said.

McKee had been engaged for 1 and a-half years to Leah Fine, whom he likened to “an angel.” His family said he wanted to travel the world with her.

McKee’s cousin, Robert Caldwell, also was a Hotshot and killed on June 30.

“I had four grandchildren, but Grant was the sweetest most giving nature of any of my grandkids,” Hoffman said. “We used to think he was a little angel.”

McKee’s father, Scott McKee, praised his son and nephew for their courage and strength to do their jobs as Hotshots. At a public memorial for the men, McKee also was remembered for his upbeat attitude and relentless spirit.

“They didn’t fall, they rose,” Scott McKee said. “I wish I was half the man my son was.”



Sean Misner, 26, loved football. He earned the name “Mighty Mouse” on his high school team in Santa Ynez, Calif., because of his size, tackling opponents with tremendous heart and desire,” recalled retired football coach Ken Gruendyke.

“He wasn’t the biggest or fastest guy on the team, but he played with great emotion and intensity,” he said.

Misner played football at Santa Barbara City College and dreamed of playing for the Dallas Cowboys but realized his true passion was firefighting. He followed in the path of his grandfather, great-grandfather, uncles and cousins.

Misner worked as a line tech at an aviation company in Prescott Valley while pursuing that passion. He joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in April.

Just months before, he learned he and his wife were going to have a child. The couple met in 2010 while he worked at a grocery store in Santa Ynez and where he also coached high school football. Sean Jaxson Herbert Misner was born in August.

His family said they take solace in knowing Misner is watching over them, along with his grandpa, “Smokey.”



Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott as a lifelong resident and through his part-time job at Bucky O’Neill Guns.

“Here in Arizona the gun shops are a lot like barbershops. Sometimes you don’t go in there to buy anything at all, you just go to talk,” resident William O’Hara said. “I never heard a dirty word out of the guy. He was the kind of guy who if he dated your daughter, you’d be OK with it.

“He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman.”

Norris enjoyed being outdoors, whether it was backpacking and river rafting at the Grand Canyon, snowboarding, biking or visiting the state’s wilderness areas with his girlfriend Heather and their dogs. He also traveled to Cambodia, Thailand and Central America.

He used his skills as a writer to send descriptive, entertaining emails about his travels.

Norris worked for the Hotshot crew for five years after earning his firefighter certification from Yavapai College.

Evan Whetten, a Payson Hotshot, said Norris was “one of the toughest, most unbreakable guys” and would do anything for his friends.

“A true original, Scott was never afraid to be himself and did not follow trends,” Whetten said. “He was his own man.”



Wade Parker joined the Hotshots team in 2012 and was named rookie of the year. His father works for the nearby Chino Valley Fire Department, and Parker knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“He was another guy who wanted to be a second generation firefighter,” said retired Prescott Fire Department Capt. Jeff Knotek, who had known Parker since he was a child. “Big, athletic kid who loved it, aggressive, assertive and in great shape.”

Parker, 22, excelled in baseball and football while growing up. The Chino Valley High School graduate set one of the top records for number of interceptions in a single season and high school career.

He was captain of his baseball team, making the all-state team and later playing on a scholarship at Lamar Community College.

His first job was at his favorite place to eat, In-N-Out Burger.

Parker was to marry his high school sweetheart, Alicia Owens, in October. He proposed to her at Disneyland last year.



He loved baseball and had an unforgettable laugh. In his aunt’s eyes, John Percin Jr. was, simply, an “amazing young man.”

“He was probably the strongest and bravest young man I have ever met in my life,” Donna Percin Pederson said from her home in Portland, Ore.

Percin, 24, was a multisport high school athlete who graduated in 2007 from West Linn High School, southeast of Portland. He especially enjoyed playing basketball, hiking, and hanging out with his family and his English Lab he named Champ.

His family said he was grateful for the support of the Prescott community, where he bettered himself, and for the love from his brothers in the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

“John is a hero who made us all so very proud,” his family said.



Anthony Rose, 23, was one of the youngest victims. He was born in Illinois and moved to Arizona at 16, living with his uncle in the mountain community of Crown King. At 18, he was hired on with the local fire department.

He saw something special in Hotshot crews working a fire in Crown King in 2008 and decided to become a wildland firefighter.

Retired Crown King firefighter Greg Flores said Rose “just blossomed in the fire department.”

“He did so well and helped so much in Crown King,” he said. “We were all so very proud of him”

Flores said the town hoped to have a memorial to honor him.

“He was the kind of guy that his smile lit up the whole room and everyone would just rally around him,” Flores said. “He loved what he was doing, and that brings me some peace of heart.”

Rose began working with the Granite Mountain crew in 2012, earning the nickname “Baby G.”

His family said he was excited to become a father this year. Rose kissed his girlfriend Tiffany’s stomach before heading out to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire and told the little girl inside “to be good to mommy,” his family said. The two learned in February that they were having a child.



As a Marine, Jesse Steed knew a little something about camaraderie. He joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2001 after four years with the Marines, saying it was the closest thing to military brotherhood that he could find in the civilian world.

Steed, 36, was one of the older members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and served as a captain. Renton, Wash., police officer Cassidy Steed said his brother “always put his life on the line for people who he knew he would never meet.”

Steed’s former colleagues remember him as a joker.

“He was a character. If you look at all the old photos of him, he was doing things to make people laugh,” said Cooper Carr, who worked with Steed in the Hotshots from 2001 to 2003.

“He was good at impressions, and he sang songs; he was just great for morale. He’d just talk in a funny voice and have us all in stitches,” Carr said. “And he was strong as an ox.”

Carr remembers that Steed once spent the better part of an hour positioning a water bottle just right for a photo so that it would look like Yosemite Falls was cascading into it.

Steed was also remembered for his dedication to fighting wildfires.

“A job like the Hotshots is hard, hard work, and you don’t stay in it if you don’t love it,” Carr said.

Steed and his wife Desiree had two children, Caden and Cambria. He was known for his greetings and goodbyes that involved rib-crushing hugs and an “I love you.”



Back home in Cedar City, Utah, Joe Thurston, 32, used to go to an area reservoir with friends and promptly show how fearless he could be. Jumping off 50-foot high cliffs might instill fear in others, but friends said he would do front flips off them.

His mother, Gayemarie Ekker, and friends said at a memorial and fundraiser in Utah that he was a daredevil who was up to any challenge and pushed the limits whether it was skateboarding or cliff diving.

“After talking to his friends, the miracle is not that we had Joe,” Ekker said. “The miracle is that we had Joe for as long as we did.”

Thurston took his bold streak to the Granite Mountain Hotshots. He had been an emergency medical technician and firefighter since 2008.

“He had all the qualities that a firefighter would need to possess,” E.J. Overson, a friend of Thurston’s told the Salt Lake Tribune. “He was service-oriented, very caring and willing to do some things that many others would say, `I don’t want to get involved.'”

He went to Cedar High School and Southern Utah University, played in a band and rode skateboards. More recently, he could be found at the baseball field or playing with his two young sons, Collin and Ethan, on the floor.

His family said he found new ways to express his love for his high school sweetheart, Marsena, every day. They were married 11 years.



When Travis Turbyfill was in kindergarten, he drew a picture of a fire truck and titled it, “When I grow up.”

“I want to be a fire man,” he wrote. “I will fire fight the fires.”

Instead of a typical red hook-and-ladder truck, he drew a pale green vehicle that closely resembles the type used by the Granite Mountain crew. Known as “Turby” among crew members, Turbyfill got a full-time position with the crew when another member’s girlfriend asked him to quit. He began his career as a wildland firefighter in 2005, a year after graduating from Prescott High School.

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2007 to 2010, he resumed the firefighting career with the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Turbyfill, 27, often worked with other Hotshots at Captain Crossfit, a warehouse filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings near the firehouse. He would train in the morning and then return in the afternoon with his wife, Stephanie, and kids.

Trainer Janine Pereira said she kidded Turbyfill for skipping workouts. His excuse was that he wanted to spend some quality time at Dairy Queen.

“He was telling me that it’s because it was Blizzard week, and he was just going to eat a Blizzard every night,” she said.

Tony Burris, another trainer, said he enjoyed watching Turbyfill with his two daughters _ Brooklyn Elizabeth and Brynley Elizabeth.

“Because he’s this big, huge Marine, Hotshot guy, and he has two little girls _ reddish-blond curly hair _ and they just loved their dad,” he said.

Turbyfill wasn’t shy about changing diapers, painting the girls’ toenails and playing with them non-stop.

“Not a day went by that we didn’t know how much he loved us, cared for us and appreciated us,” his wife said. “He thought he was the luckiest man in the world, but I know we were the lucky ones.”



Billy Warneke, 25, had joined the Hotshots just months before he died. Friends and family said he was selfless, confident, heroic, outgoing and courageous.

He and his wife Roxanne were married in Tucson in December 2008. They were expecting their first child in December, a little girl Roxanne plans to name Billie Grace after Warneke.

Warneke grew up in Hemet, Calif., graduating from high school there in 2005. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17, twice deploying overseas before leaving active duty four years later in October 2009.

He earned an associate of applied science degree in fire science from Pima Community College last year, the school said.

He was known never to shy away from adventure, firing rounds at a shooting range or off-roading in the hills of Arizona.

“Even though it’s a tragedy for the whole family, he was doing what he loved to do,” his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif. “He loved nature and was helping preserve nature.”



Full of heart and determination, Clayton Whitted, 28, might not have been the biggest guy around, but he was among the hardest-working. His former Prescott High School coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was a “wonderful kid” who always had a big smile on his face.

Whitted played basketball, football as an offensive and defensive lineman, and ran track.

“He was a smart young man with a great personality, just a wonderful personality,” Beneitone said. “When he walked into a room, he could really light it up.”

Beneitone said Whitted loved being a firefighter and was well-respected among his crew. He had worked for both the Prescott Hotshots and the Granite Mountain Hotshots, taking time off while his mother was ill to become a junior high pastor. He resumed his firefighting career shortly after his mother died in December 2007.

Beneitone said he ran into Whitted a couple of months before the 2013 fire season ramped up. They shook hands, hugged and “I told him to be careful,” Beneitone said.

Whitted’s family described him as selfless, and more of a brother than a friend to those who got to know him.

Soon after he became a squad leader with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, he was introduced to Kristi Hoffman. The two were married in February 2011.



For Kevin Woyjeck, 21, the fire station was a second home. His father, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency, said Kevin often accompanied his dad to the station and on ride-alongs, and always intended to follow in his footsteps.

“He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand in hand,” Mora said outside of the fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives.

Mora remembered the younger Woyjeck as a “joy to be around,” a man who always had a smile on his face. He had been trained as an EMT and worked as an Explorer, which is a mentorship training program to become a professional firefighter.

“He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I’ve seen at that age. He wanted to work very hard.”

Woyjeck figured he could gain the experience he needed for a job in the Los Angeles County Fire Department by working as a Hotshot.

His sister, Maddie, said she would miss his smile, his laugh and the way he said “I love you.”

“He was so outgoing, he could walk into a room and just start a fire inside of somebody,” she said.



Garret Zuppiger, 27, loved to be funny, said Tony Burris, a trainer at a gym where many of the Hotshots worked out.

Burris said the two bonded over their manly ginger facial hair.

“We both had a red beard and so we would always admire each other’s beards,” he said. “We also had a few conversations about beer.”

He earned an Arizona general education curriculum-arts degree in liberal arts from Pima Community College in 2006. Then he went onto the University of Arizona to study business economics, graduating in 2008.

“He adjusted pretty well, and seemed very outgoing, well liked and well respected,” said Steve Michel, Zuppiger’s academic adviser.

But Zuppiger eventually acknowledged that he wanted more of an outdoor lifestyle, Michel said.

“We spent a lot of time talking about how the economics major could apply to that,” he said.

Zuppiger joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2012, a source of pride for a man who didn’t have any experience in firefighting. During his rookie season, he was awarded the fire books for being first in his class in wildfire training school.

Zuppiger’s minor at UA was in English, and he kept a fun and lively blog in the years immediately after he graduated. He wrote about his travels around the West and displayed his sense of humor in items on his grandmother’s one-eyed Chihuahua, his “best hair day ever” and a hike with his mother on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. There also are photos of a tongue-in-cheek project to build a “ski-chair,” in which a living room recliner was placed atop two skis.

“Garret Zuppiger turns 25!” he wrote in a post several years ago. “Everyday is like a gift!!”


Associated Press reporters Raquel Maria Dillon in Seal Beach, Calif., Sue Manning in Los Angeles, and Felicia Fonseca and Hannah Dreier in Prescott contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Friends, family share stories of fallen Hotshots