Ariz. Hotshots included jokesters, fathers-to-be

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 2, 2013 at 7:52 pm •  Published: July 2, 2013
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PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, were killed Sunday 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:

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ANDREW ASHCRAFT: AN ATHLETIC, GO-GETTER

Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots, and remembered Andrew Ashcraft, 29, 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, was honored to be a member of the Hotshot crew, and "he just had a really sweet spirit about him," Prescott resident Elise Smith told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City.

Ashcraft left behind a wife, Juliann, and four children, the newspaper reported.

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ROBERT CALDWELL: THE SMART ONE

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

"He was really smart. He had a good sense of humor," said Chase Madrid, who worked as a Hotshot for two years, but sat this year out.

"He was one of the smart guys in the crew who could get the weather, figure out the mathematics. It was just natural for him," Madrid said.

It was Caldwell's intelligence and know-how that got him appointed as a squad boss.

His cousin, Grant McKee, also was one of the Hotshots killed Sunday.

"Robert was a gentle giant — he was man of few words," said his aunt, Laurie McKee.

He had just gotten married in November, and had a 5-year-old stepson.

"Both of these boys were only interested in having a family life. Robert was newly married, and Grant was engaged. They just wanted the house and the dog," McKee said.

Mary Hoffmann was grandmother to both boys.

"To have two grandsons gone, it's devastation," she said.

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TRAVIS CARTER: STRONG AND HUMBLE

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.

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DUSTIN DEFORD: DRY SENSE OF HUMOR

Dustin DeFord, 24, had been a firefighter since he turned 18 and started as a volunteer in tiny Ekalaka, Mont. His father, the Rev. Steve DeFord, said the outpouring of support there has been unbelievable.

"We've got enough food in the house to last a year," he said.

DeFord graduated from Cornerstone Bible Institute in Hot Springs, S.D., three years ago, his father said, and always believed God was his guiding force.

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 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 Marine Corps staff sergeant who is traveling home from Afghanistan, an older brother who is fighting fire with a helicopter team in New Mexico and a younger brother on a Hotshot crew in Alaska.

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CHRIS MACKENZIE: 'JUST LIKE HIS DAD'

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, longtime friend Dav Fulford-Brown told The Riverside Press-Enterprise.

MacKenzie, like at least one other member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, had followed his father into firefighting. Michael MacKenzie, a former Moreno Valley Fire Department captain, confirmed he had been informed of his son's death.

"I can't talk about it," he said.

Fulford-Brown, also a former firefighter, feared for the worst once he heard the news of the Arizona firefighters.

"I said, 'Oh, my God. That's Chris' crew.' I started calling him and calling him and got no answer," Fulford-Brown told The Press-Enterprise.

MacKenzie, he said, "lived life to the fullest ... and was fighting fire just like his dad."

"He was finishing his credentials to get promoted and loved the people. It's an insane tragedy."

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ERIC MARSH: HOOKED ON FIREFIGHTING

Eric Marsh, 43, was an avid mountain biker who grew up in Ashe County, N.C., and became hooked on firefighting while studying at Appalachian State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of his cousin.

Marsh lived with Racquer and her then-husband during the winters from 1992 through 1996 in North Carolina, but returned to Arizona during fire season.

After college, he kept working as a firefighter, eventually landing a full-time job and settling in northern Arizona. He even moved his parents to the state, she said. Marsh was superintendent of the Hotshot crew and the oldest of the 19 who died.

"He's was great — he was the best at what he did," Racquer said. "He is awesome and well-loved, and they are hurting," she said of his family.

Marsh was married but had no children, said his cousin, Scott Marsh of Pisgah Forest, N.C. His father, John Marsh, told the Jefferson Post newspaper in Jefferson, N.C., that his only child "was a great son."

"He was compassionate and caring about his crew."

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GRANT MCKEE: GIVING NATURE

Grant McKee, 21, loved to give things away.

"Even as a child, I'd ask him where things were, and he'd say, 'Oh, such and such liked it.' And sometimes it really cost a lot! But he'd say, 'Oh, he liked it so much,'" said his grandmother, Mary Hoffmann.

"So on his birthday, I started to say, 'I hope you're going to keep this!'" she said.

McKee's cousin, Robert Caldwell, also was a Hotshot and also was killed Sunday.

"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 mother said Grant was training to be an emergency medical technician and only intended to work with the Hotshots for the summer.

During EMT training, he would ask for extra shifts at the emergency room. And because his superiors liked him, they would give them to him, Laurie McKee said.

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

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SEAN MISNER: 'TREMENDOUS HEART AND DESIRE'

Sean Misner, 26, leaves behind a wife who is seven months pregnant, said Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa Barbara County, where Misner graduated in 2005.

Misner played varsity football and also participated in the school's sports medicine program, where he wrapped sprained ankles and took care of sidelined athletes.

"He was a team player, a real helper," Swanitz told The Associated Press.

In high school, Misner played several positions, including wide receiver and defensive back. He was slim for a high school football player, but that didn't stop him from tackling his opponents, recalled retired football coach Ken Gruendyke.

"He played with tremendous heart and desire," Gruendyke said. "He wasn't the biggest or fastest guy on the team, but he played with great emotion and intensity."

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SCOTT NORRIS: THE 'IDEAL AMERICAN GENTLEMAN'

Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott 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."

O'Hara's son Ryan, 19, said Norris' life and tragic death had inspired him to live a more meaningful life.

"He was a loving guy. He loved life. And I've been guilty of not looking as happy as I should, and letting things get to me, and Scott wasn't like that at all."