Exclusive: Sole Survivor of Arizona Hotshot Firefighting Tragedy Asks Why Not Me?


What led to the deaths of the experienced team of firefighters remains under official investigation by Arizona, whose deputy state forester Jerry Payne caused an uproar last week by publicly blaming the crew's slain leader Eric Marsh for violating firefighting rules. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other state officials quickly repudiated Payne, who isn't involved in the probe, for offering his opinions before all the facts are in.

McDonough wonders why everything turned deadly that day too -- but he does not puzzle over Marsh's judgment or that of any other Hotshot.

"No, I never question the decisions they've made," he said, seated in the ready room beneath crossed axes affixed to one wall. "I never questioned them before, why should I question them now? It's not their fault. Wasn't a bad decision."

The blond, rail-thin veteran of three fire seasons led ABC News through the crew's station, a place once a center of activity in fire season but now sorrowfully quiet and filled with U.S. flags signed by fire squads, commemorative wood carvings, postcards and letters of gratitude from many whose homes were saved by the Hotshots, as well as children's playful drawings saying "thank you." Chore lists, fitness goals and duty rosters with the 20 Hotshots' names still were tacked to walls.

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McDonough found keys to the gear room, where metal shelves remained stacked with battered black helmets, piles of unused roughout gloves, yellow protective suits, shiny new chainsaws and pristine pick axes awaiting 19 young heroes who will never need them again.

"It's tough," McDonough said, as he sat near a rack of sharpened chains for their saws in the ready room left just as it was the morning of the fire, when the 20 Hotshots had their last briefing. McDonough said he joined the Hotshots after some trouble with the law and credits the experience with helping him overcome his troubled teenage years. "This is where, you know, the best memories of my life will be."

Outside, a chain link fence has become a makeshift memorial adorned with welcome but painful reminders for the young man. Sun-bleached T-shirts from fire units across the nation, helmets, wilting flowers, rain-rippled handwritten notes, photos, and 19 sets of everything from shovels to crosses, bandanas and flags drape the fencing for two blocks.

The crew had 11 kids among them, including McDonough's own two-year-old daughter, and three not yet born who lost dads they'll never meet.

"I can see them in my head, playing with their kids," he said, pausing as his heart filled with emotion over the losses. Every one of them strong, smart, always ready to head into the danger others fled. "None of us ever did it for money. We did it because we could support our family and do what we loved."

By the time McDonough and the other Hotshots arrived in Yarnell on June 30, airtankers had already been dropping chemical retardant to slow the spread of the fire -- to no avail.

"That's when the superintendent and our captain asked me to be the lookout," he explained.

That would be the assignment that would separate him from the others and save his life. McDonough picked a spot almost a mile down the hill, where he could see both the fire and the other Hotshots.

"Everything seemed normal, not threatening. Just -- a typical day, going direct on a fire," he told ABC News.

"...May the wind be always at your back..."

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