Video provides look into chaos before fire deaths

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Associated Press

Posted on December 16, 2013 at 8:05 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 16 at 8:06 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — The sky glowed red as thick smoke choked out the sun as static communications over the radio captured the final chaotic and confusing moments before 19 members of an elite firefighting crew died in an inferno in the mountains of Arizona.

The dramatic scene and spotty radio communications were captured on video from the helmet camera of a firefighter with another crew on June 30 in the minutes before the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew deployed their emergency shelters and died in the fast-moving wildfire about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix.

The video, along with thousands of pages of documents, including text messages and photos taken by other fire crews and some from the Granite Mountain team before their deaths, were released last week by the Arizona State Forestry Division.

The nearly 8-minute video shows thick smoke surrounding another fire crew as someone with the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew can be heard yelling frantically on the radio.

"OK Granite Mountain 7 sounds like they got some trouble, uh, go ahead and get that, he's trying to get you on the radio, let's go ahead and see what we've going on," another firefighter can be heard saying.

At one point, it appears clear no one knew exactly where the crew was.

"Is Granite still in there?" a firefighter can be heard asking a colleague on the video.

"Well, they're in a safety zone," another replied.

Less than two minutes later, someone with the Granite Mountain crew chimes back in on the radio.

"Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burned out around ourselves in the brush and I'll give you a call when we are under the ... shelters," the person said.

That was the last transmission from the Granite Mountain crew heard on the video as air support tried to figure out just where the team was located.

"I need you to pay attention and tell me where you hear the aircraft, OK? Cuz it's gonna be a little tough for us to see ya," another firefighter is heard saying.

The Granite Mountain crew did not respond and were found dead later that day.

The video was among materials gathered through an investigation into the deaths by a national team of fire experts commissioned by the Forestry Division.

The Arizona Republic, which first obtained the records, reported they show a situation in chaos, with air tankers hitting the wrong targets, commanders lacking safety plans, and supervisors arguing while some crews in the field didn't have maps or even know who was in charge amid major radio problems that cut off communications at times.

The report commissioned by the Forestry Division was released in September and found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures when the 19 firefighters were killed in the blaze. It laid no blame for the deaths.

However, a report issued earlier this month by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health was a stinging rebuke of the earlier investigation, finding that state fire officials lacked key personnel at critical times, had serious lapses of workplace safety rules and that fire managers should have pulled the crews out at least an hour before the fatalities.

The ADOSH investigators also determined that state fire officials put protection of property and pasture ahead of firefighter safety, even though they knew the area couldn't be defended. The state Industrial Commission levied $559,000 in fines against the state Forestry Division based on the ADOSH report. The state has 15 working days to appeal.

The Forestry Division has declined comment but noted the agency fully cooperated with the investigation.

The mother of one of the firefighters has filed a $36 million notice of claim against several entities involved in fighting the fire, saying negligence led to her son's death. A claim is required before someone can sue a government agency in Arizona. Additional lawsuits from family members are expected to follow while some residents who lost their homes in the foothills town of Yarnell also are beginning to make claims for compensation.

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