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Lookout warned team before fire killed 19, officials say

By Jason Hanna and Dugald McConnell, CNN
July 3, 2013 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Lookout warned his team, then left post as prescribed, officials say
  • NEW: The lookout, Brendan McDonough, departed hilltop post just before flames came
  • 19 members of a "hotshot" team from Prescott died in an Arizona wildfire Sunday
  • McDonough was the only team member to survive

(CNN) -- Brendan McDonough, a lookout for his elite 20-man Arizona wildfire-fighting crew, saw Sunday's blaze change directions and warned his team by radio from his hilltop perch.

The new conditions, he told them, also were forcing him to leave that spot, officials recalled Tuesday.

He did as he was trained, officials said. And because he did, McDonough might have escaped his own death by seconds.

McDonough was trying to go to another lookout point when the Yarnell Hill fire killed 19 members of Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots, Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward said.

Nineteen firefighters, part of an elite group called the Hotshots, died while battling a wildfire about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix on Sunday, June 30. Here are the 19 victims: Andrew Ashcraft, 29. Nineteen firefighters, part of an elite group called the Hotshots, died while battling a wildfire about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix on Sunday, June 30. Here are the 19 victims: Andrew Ashcraft, 29.
The Arizona firefighter victims
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The incident, part of a fire that has burned more than 8,400 acres since Friday, produced the deadliest day for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks.

"He [McDonough] was doing what he was supposed to do," Ward told CNN. "The crew was doing what they need to do. This is why they call this kind of thing an accident."

Honoring the fallen

Ward, who confirmed McDonough's name and job Tuesday, said McDonough is having a hard time dealing with his comrades' deaths and wasn't ready to talk. In a statement released through a fire official Tuesday, McDonough said he was grateful for the public's "outpouring of support towards his organization," and he asked for privacy for his family and his comrades' relatives.

"Everyone can appreciate that he's working though the process of dealing with this loss, and that could last for some time," said Bob Orrill, a regional incident commander helping the fire department.

Opinion: When heroes face down fire -- and fate

'His lookout had already burned over'

McDonough was overlooking his teammates when he told them the "weather was changing rapidly," and winds moved the fire in a different direction, Wade told reporters Tuesday.

Wade didn't have particulars, but he said the changes amounted to a "trigger point" -- previously agreed conditions that would require him to go to another spot.

McDonough, as prescribed, told the crew he was leaving, and that "he would contact them and they could contact him if they needed anything," Wade said.

He went down the hill and met a supervisor of a different hotshot crew. Hotshot crews such as McDonough's are elite teams that are called to get close to the blaze, dig barriers and clear out the brush and other material that otherwise would fuel it.

McDonough turned around. He apparently left just in time.

"The location that he was at at his lookout had already burned over," Wade said. "He got in (a) vehicle (with the other team's supervisor) and was taken to a safety zone."

Perhaps a mile or two away from McDonough's original location -- Wade didn't know Sunday's particulars, but he said that's typically the distance between lookout and crew -- the fire overcame the 19.

The deaths are under investigation, but officials have said it appears the 19 were forced to lie down under fire shelters, blankets meant to protect against flames and heat, as a last resort against an inferno that overwhelmed them.

Wildfire battle shadowed by losses

'You cannot immediately drop somebody in another position'

One Prescott official, speaking with Wade at the news conference in Prescott Tuesday, told reporters that it was protocol to have a hotshot lookout in place at all times. The officials there said they didn't know whether another lookout was in place when McDonough moved.

Either way, Wade said, McDonough "was doing his job and the hotshot crew was doing their job."

"You cannot immediately drop somebody in another position," Wade said. "There are lookouts in the air ... as well as other lookouts. He left his post based on protocol, and we was moving to a new position."

The Prescott community has taken the deaths hard.

Many attended a memorial service at the city's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus Monday. A tribute outside Prescott Fire Station No. 7 grew that day, with flowers, American flags and signs placed on or near a fence that separated the station from a road. The tokens also included 19 bottles of water, arranged in a circle.

On Monday, the Prescott fire chief also told reporters -- without identifying McDonough at the time -- that the 20th member was struggling.

"Unfortunately, we have very few words to express that kind of sorrow, but we understood each other," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said Monday. "When you take a person in your arms and you hug them, you don't have to say too much."

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