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Friends, family share stories of fallen Hotshots

Published on NewsOK Modified: September 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm •  Published: September 28, 2013
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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:

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ANDREW ASHCRAFT: AN ATHLETIC, GO-GETTER

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.

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ROBERT CALDWELL: THE SMART ONE

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."

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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.

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.

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DUSTIN DEFORD: DRY SENSE OF HUMOR

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.

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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.

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.

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ERIC MARSH: HOOKED ON FIREFIGHTING

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."

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GRANT MCKEE: GIVING NATURE

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."

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SEAN MISNER: 'TREMENDOUS HEART AND DESIRE'

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."

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SCOTT NORRIS: THE 'IDEAL AMERICAN GENTLEMAN'

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."

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WADE PARKER: ANOTHER SECOND GENERATION FIREFIGHTER

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."

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