A month ago today, eyes were tearful and hearts were broken as America mourned the loss of 19 firefighters killed when they were overrun by a raging wildfire.
Thousands – led by Vice President Joe Biden – mourned the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots.
They were honored for their bravery, their teamwork, their tenacity under fire.
On Tuesday – the one month anniversary of the tragedy in Yarnell Hill – a senior Arizona forestry official told Investigative Media reporter that he thinks the hotshots’ leader, Eric Marsh, violated a number of policies that horrific day.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo blasted Arizona Forestry Deputy Director Jerry Payne for his comments he considers “unethical.”
"I think it is one of the most disgusting incidents that I have had in my entire career," Fraijo told ABC15 staff.
"Eric Marsh was one of the most intelligent and hardest working people. He took his profession to the science level. I have stellar reports on him. I can tell you that if he was here right now I would do the same things that most of our people would do, I would follow him anywhere. This is a terrible insult to him and to his family and it is unfounded."
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were sponsored by Fraijo’s department.
Payne told the reporter “it appears that Marsh violated several basic wildfire rules including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation near a wildfire…”
He added it appears that Marsh believed he had time to lead his crew from a safe area on a ridge that had already been burned and down a hillside packed with a tangle of chaparral, through the heavily vegetated box canyon and to a safety zone at a nearby ranch where vegetation had been cleared.
At the time, the fire was a mile or two away, the forestry official said, speculating that Marsh may have been thinking: “What’s the fastest way, well hell, we’ll just zip down through this valley and we got an hour..."
Payne went on to describe the scene for the writer: "By the time the Granite Mountain crew reached the base of the ridge the fire had swept into the canyon and was heading straight for the men, forcing them to deploy their fire shelters at about 4:47 p.m. Only five of the men were found inside their shelters when a Department of Public Safety medic reached the deployment site sometime after 5:30 p.m. and found all 19 men dead..."
After Payne's interview with the reporter, the state forestry service issued an apology.
“State Forestry apologizes for Mr. Payne’s inappropriate expression of opinion as fact and unfounded speculation that prejudges the ultimate conclusion of the investigation,” the statement said. Hunt said his agency has taken no position on causes of the deaths pending the outcome of independent investigations.