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'We all owe you': Thousands pay tribute to fallen Arizona firefighters

At the memorial for the fallen Prescott, Arizona firefighters, an emotional Vice President Joe Biden tells the audience how firefighters have saved his life, and the lives of his family.

A crowd gathered Tuesday to honor the lives of the 19 Arizona firefighters killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill blaze on June 30.

The memorial was held in Prescott, Ariz., where the Granite Hotshots were based. Indoor seating was available to about 5,000 attendees, but jumbo screens outside allowed thousands more to gather and view the service in the sweltering heat.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Children look at mementos at a memorial dedicated to the 19 firefighters killed in the nearby wildfire in Prescott, Arizona, July 8, 2013.

The stage was lined with American flags and images of the fallen firefighters. The memorial included a slideshow of the Hotshots, combining images of the men on duty with those of them fishing, spending time with their families, or playing with their dogs.

Speakers from the Prescott Fire Department recounted the men’s bravery, expressed gratitude for the outpour of public support, and conveyed sympathy for the men’s families.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo presented the victims’ families with U.S. and Arizona flags, as well as a bronze Pulaski, a tool used in wildland firefighting. Later, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold A. Schaitberger, presented each of the families with the IAFF Gold Medal of Honor.

Among those present were several government officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Vice President Joe Biden.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Firefighter Robert Bunsoldat takes a picture of each of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team members before the memorial in Prescott Valley, Ariz. Nineteen firefighters - all members of an elite response team - were killed battling a fast-moving wildfire in Arizona.

Brewer thanked the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their families for their sacrifice. “They were 19 heroes,” Brewer said, “gone at the turn of the wind.”

Biden shared stories of the impact firefighters have had on his life, including when firefighters saved the lives of his two sons, who were rescued from a car accident that killed Biden’s wife and daughter in 1972.

“There’s a great saying – all men are created equal, but then a few became firefighters,” the vice president said. “Thank God for you all. Thank God for your willingness to take the risk you do. We all owe you. We also owe your families, to my left and my right, because you supported them. You supported these Hotshots.”

Brendan McDonough, the lone survivor of the elite crew, shared the Hotshots’ prayer with the audience, which ended with these words: “For if this day on the line I should answer death’s call, Lord bless my Hotshot crew, my family, one and all.”

The loss of the 19 Hotshots was the greatest loss of life for fighters since Sept. 11, 2001.

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