By Jonathan Olsen
The midday sun radiated intense heat, but the 112-degree temperature didn’t feel unbearable to me. It was Sunday, July 7, 2013. I was standing among a long line of people gathered in two rows flanking each side of the highway. Hundreds of vehicles were parked on the dusty dirt shoulders. Persons of every age and from all walks of life were there: families with young children waving small American flags; an elderly couple sitting in lawn chairs shaded with umbrellas; a group of friends piling out of a Suburban that was towing a boat. All of us were patiently waiting and watching for something.
Suddenly, several news helicopters flew in from different directions and hovered overhead. Three words quickly spread along the line of onlookers: “Here they come.” We immediately sprang to attention and moved forward to the edge of the pavement, craning our necks to see. Down the road, a bunch of purple balloons were released and floated heavenward. The murmur of the crowd became instantly quiet as a vanguard of police motorcycles started going by. The engine roar punctuated the silence.
Following the motorcycle escorts were police cars, fire trucks, and several other emergency vehicles with their lights flashing. Next came a black SUV with dark tinted windows. Then appeared what seemed like an endless caravan of white hearses. One by one they slowly passed by – all nineteen of them. Each hearse had a placard in the side window with a man’s name on it, so we would know who was inside the flag-draped casket. As I stood there, hat off and hand over my heart, a somber perspective occurred to me: nineteen is a large number when it represents human lives.
It took only a few minutes for the solemn procession to move past us. One moment the vehicles were there, but the next thing I knew, they had disappeared from sight. I reflected on the parallel between the motorcade’s departure and the men whose bodies were inside the hearses – both were gone in the blink of an eye. The deceased men were the nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots, tragically killed on June 30th by an out-of-control wildfire while working to protect the small town of Yarnell, Arizona.
This emotional event was my introduction to the fire service, and my first deployment after joining the volunteer Fire Corps. I didn’t even have my own uniform yet; I was wearing a borrowed one with a temporary badge. It was awkward and embarrassing having strangers come up to me, shake my hand, and say “thanks for everything you do” when I hadn’t done anything.
I was stationed on Carefree Highway with the Daisy Mountain Fire Department. Emergency responders from many different cities and towns were set up at regular intervals along the 125-mile memorial route from Phoenix to Prescott. Some hoisted giant American flags on the raised ladders of fire trucks. Others, like our group, simply stood by and silently observed. It was a ceremonial show of support to pay respect to these fallen heroes whose deaths were the greatest loss of life for firefighters since 9/11.
I thought it was rather ironic that this tragedy happened so soon after I had enrolled in the community college Fire Science program, almost as if to ask, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Seeing those nineteen hearses brought the danger and sacrifice of the job to the forefront, turning the excitement of a firefighting career into a reality check that I will never forget. It didn’t seem possible that such a bizarre twist of fate could happen to a group of highly trained men in the prime of their lives, and yet sadly it did.
While the tragic circumstances didn’t change my mind about my career plans, I did learn an important lesson on that day. I discovered that the fire service is much larger than any one firefighter or any one fire district. It encompasses a unique brotherhood of first responders, fire departments, and public safety organizations that all look out for each other. They serve not only to assist and protect, but also to provide comfort and support in times of need. In addition, this experience revealed the genuine respect and appreciation for firefighters by citizens. Firefighting is a dangerous job, but the sacrifices are balanced out by the rewards that come from being a valued part of the community.
Note: This was a personal narrative essay written for my English 101 class.