PRESCOTT, Ariz. (Reuters) — An elite squad of 19 Arizona firefighters killed in the worst U.S. wildland fire tragedy in 80 years apparently was outflanked and engulfed by wind-whipped flames in seconds, before some could scramble into cocoon-like personal shelters.
Details of Sunday's deaths of all but one member of the specially trained, 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots were vague a day after they died in a blaze that destroyed scores of homes and forced the evacuation of two towns in central Arizona.
But fragments of the firefighters' final moments painted some of the picture as an investigation was launched into how the disaster unfolded and their remains were borne away in a cortege of 19 white coroner's vans to Phoenix for autopsies.
The solemn procession from the team's home base in the town of Prescott was welcomed by a police and firefighter honour guard after passing beneath a flag-draped arch of ladders extended from two fire trucks parked on either side of the roadway.
Fire officials said the fallen men, most in their 20s, were victims of a highly volatile mix of erratic, gale-force winds, low humidity, a sweltering heat wave and thick, drought-parched brush that had not burned in some 40 years.
The deaths brought an outpouring of tributes from political leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who is on an official trip to Africa. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called the deaths "one of our state's darkest, most devastating days" and ordered state flags flown at half staff through Wednesday.
At least 1,800 people crammed into sports hall at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on the outskirts of Prescott for a memorial service on Thursday. A lone piper played amazing grace, as friends and relatives of the fallen wept and hugged.
U.S. Representative Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona said one of the firefighters was a family member by marriage, with whom she had celebrated Christmas.
"We are gathered today because we are overwhelmed by grief," she said. "We don't know what to do but come together. As our hearts begin to heal, I hope we will be inspired by that phrase, 'There's nothing stronger than the heart of the firefighter.'"
The blaze was sparked on Friday by lightning near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles (128 km) northwest of Phoenix. It was still raging unchecked on Monday after scorching some 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands.
Still, conditions faced by the "hotshots," who fight flames at close range with hand tools, were typical for the wildfires they are trained to battle, fire officials said.
They were trapped as a windstorm kicked up and the fire suddenly exploded on Sunday, said Peter Andersen, a former Yarnell fire chief who was helping the firefighting effort.
"The smoke had turned and was blowing back on us," Andersen said. "It looked almost like a smoke tornado, and the winds were going every which way."
‘Nothing they could do’
The powerful gusts abruptly split the fire, driving it in two directions, then pushing flames back in on the hotshot crew, who were working on one flank of the fire front, he said.
Sunday's disaster in Arizona marks the highest death toll among firefighters from a U.S. wildland blaze since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The firefighters deployed their personal shelters, capsule-like devices designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air, in a last-ditch effort to survive, officials said.
Andersen said some of the men on the ground made it into their shelters and some did not, according to an account relayed by a ranger helicopter crew flying over the area.
"There was nothing they (helicopter crew) could do to get to them," he said.
Prescott Fire Department Chief Dan Fraijo said hotshot crews typically establish a secure "safety zone" to which they can retreat if flames start to close in on them.
Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley. The two towns are southwest of Prescott and home to roughly 1,000 people.
Officials said on Sunday at least 200 structures, mostly homes, had been destroyed, most of them in Yarnell, a community consisting largely of retirees, but the figure could rise.
The so-called Yarnell Hills blaze was one of dozens of wildfires in several western U.S. states in recent weeks in what experts say could be one of the worst fire seasons on record.
Arizona Forestry Commission spokesman Mike Reichling said one member of the 20-man crew had been driving in a separate location and survived unhurt.
Evacuee Rick McKenzie, 53, a bow hunter and ranch caretaker, said the fire exploded on Sunday with flames 30 to 40 feet (9 to13 meters) high. He said he had warned the Hotshots about the dense oak woods where they would be working.
"I said, 'If this fire sweeps down the mountain to the lower hills where all this thick brush is, it's going to blow up, guys, you need to watch it,'" McKenzie said.
(With files from Steve Gorman and David Schwartz)