“A wall of flames 40 feet high was sweeping its way up the canyon, 400 yards away. At that point, they would have had about a minute. Since they couldn’t get to the safety zone, they had to make one of their own. Andrew Ashcraft and Travis Turbyfill, the two sawyers, started attacking the brush with their chain saws, while the rest of the guys swung their Pulaskis, frantically doing what they were trained to do: move dirt, and move dirt faster. They dumped fuel from their drip cans around the zone they’d created, then set the chain saws at the outer perimeter, so that when they exploded no one would get hurt.
[The team’s leader,] Eric, got on the radio. The Hotshots’ escape route had been cut off, he said, and they were deploying their emergency shelters.
Eric’s voice was calm – some said the calmest they’d ever heard him. At 4:47, he radioed his last transmission: ‘Deploying.’ And then, just like they’d practiced, the Granite Mountain Hotshots climbed into their shelters.
Finally, at 6:30 – an agonizing 103 minutes later – the helicopter was able to get on the ground. The onboard medic hurried to the site where they’d seen the shelters. As he approached, he spotted the metal blade from a chain saw and a pickax with the handle burned away. The ranch house was unscathed. Everything else was a smoldering moonscape.
Experts estimate that the fire burned between 3,000 and 5,000 degrees. In the end, there wasn’t much left. But what there was told a story.
The 19 Hotshots were all together. No one panicked, no one ran. Travis Turbyfill and Andrew Ashcraft, the sawyers, were at the edge of the group, closest to the flames. They were cutting lines up until the end.
When Juliann [ed – Andrew’s wife] got Andrew’s effects back, his boots and clothes were gone. His metal belt buckle didn’t make it. His pocketknife. The journals that he kept. There was a piece of Velcro from his watchband but not the watch itself. Even the metal plate and eight screws in his leg, from when he shattered it in a rappelling accident a few years back, had disappeared.
Two things, she discovered, had somehow survived the fire. One was Andrew’s wedding ring, titanium. The other, shrunken and black, was the rubber wristband that said: be better.”
–Excerpt from an excellent and comprehensive article The Last Battle of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, by Josh Eells, for Men’s Journal.
I initially created today’s image to be a companion piece for this photo of Katie and I, honoring the fallen firemen in Yarnell, Arizona almost a year ago.
A childhood friend of mine, Andrew Ashcraft, had been one of the lost. As I do with most painful things, I channeled my grief into my art.
Though it always makes me cry to think about it, there is such beauty in the men’s calm acceptance of their sacrifice, their solidarity, that they were a complete, solid unit until the very end. Josh Eell’s article says it so wonderfully. They stuck together. In the face of immediate, certain death, they did what they could and then turned to each other for comfort. Shoulder to shoulder, they stuck together until the horrific last.
That unity, that love, that solidarity and bravery touched me more deeply than I could, or can, express. The only chance I had at touching on it was through art. I set up a shoot with Katie and Bryce to portray the doomed but brave men. It happened that some tree branches and very tall bushes in my yard had just been cut down, forming what appeared to be a huge, natural nest. Thinking of the Hotshots as birds with broken, burned wings helped me find the metaphor I wanted to use, a way into the truth I was trying to get at.
It was an easy shoot, what with all the branches having been set up for me by the workmen. I lit a few smoke bombs, snapped the frames and it was done. I loved what I had gotten from this shoot as I looked at the images later. All the same, I found I couldn’t face editing the image. It took many, many months before I felt like I could emotionally handle editing working it up.
I didn’t consciously realize we were coming up on the anniversary of their deaths, but I must have felt it subconsciously. I’ve been haunted by memories of Andrew recently and finally felt that it was time, urgently time, to finish this piece. As I finally brought the files into Photoshop and started working on them, more memories flooded my brain. Like how Andrew, as a young child, had always said “Jee Jie Joes” instead of “GI Joes” and frequently got tripped up between “brought” and “brung.” The trip our families took to Mount Shasta together. Their shelties, who seem huge in my mind, but who I know were actually smallish dogs. Drawing together, playing in the sprinklers, going to the beach, sharing snacks, going to the park, getting into fights, crying and making up again… all the things children do.
I’ve said before that one of the things I mourn in this is that I missed out on getting to know Andrew as an adult. I’ve tried to remember that lesson and have made a point to stay in touch, or get back in touch, with people in my life. I won’t get another chance at Andrew, but I can try and apply the lesson to other friendships.
None of these men deserved their fate. They were true heroes, actively running into the worst, most dangerous situations. That is what the Hotshots were there for; an elite team of firefighters comparable to Navy Seals or Spartans. The only thing I can try and do about it is make an attempt to honor them and their sacrifice. I know that I will always fall short in this goal, but it’s important to try nonetheless. I am also keenly aware that this is not about me or my pain. The pain of Andrew’s family and loved ones is something I can only imagine.
The Hotshots were trapped; birds unable to fly away. There was no escape from the flames. But what remained was love. Love triumphing over the flames by preserving Andrew’s wedding ring and bracelet with his personal motto. Love for the people they were protecting, though they would never meet them. Love for their families, though they left them behind in the line of their duty. Love for each other. Love for humanity. Just love.
That love is what I wanted most to capture in this image and I hope it shines through.
My heart goes out to the family and friends of all 19 fallen heroes especially as we approach the anniversary of this tragedy. I’m sure it’s an extremely difficult time for all of them.