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


Around 4:00 in the afternoon, however, everything changed. The winds that had been driving the fire away from the Hotshots began to turn 180 degrees, propelled by what some fire officials call a "perfect storm" of gusts up to 50 miles per hour. Instead of moving north, it started moving south as the flame front leapt from 25 to 50 feet high.

McDonough says the team could now see what was happening -- contradicting some accounts that they were unaware the fire was heading toward them.

"From where they were, they could see it picking up. So they kind of relayed to me, 'Hey, Donut, we got eyes on it,'" McDonough remembers his captain telling him. "They said, 'If you need to get out of there, go ahead and get out of there... we want you to be safe too,' you know?"

McDonough radioed back a brief reply to call if they needed anything and that he'd be with the buggies. He is haunted by the last words of his boss. "Jesse Steed, my captain, said, 'All right, I'll see you soon.' I said, 'Okay.'"

That was the last time McDonough talked to them. He was at what wildland firefighters call their trigger point -- time to make a move. He could see them clearly enough to identify individuals as he left and headed toward a nearby highway used as a command center for the fire response.

And then came very bad news that smoke-choked afternoon.

A male using the callsign Granite Mountain 7 came up on the radio, who was almost unintelligible and "sounded excited and out of breath," according to statements by state rescue workers. A rescue pilot described it as a "panic call" and it prompted Air Attack, the state command overseeing the fire, to bark, "Whoever is yelling on the radio, get off the air."

At 4:47, it was reported over the radio that McDonough's crewmates had been forced to deploy their individual fire shelters -- a last ditch step. "It's not something you wanna hear," McDonough said.

But the Granite Mountain crew's radios went silent as firefighters in Yarnell watched the fire front advance, and the 20th Hotshot grew increasingly anxious.

"Why wasn't I there with them?" McDonough said he asked himself. "That's all I could think, to pray for their safety... I'm kind of numb at that point. I'd cried a lot. And I came to a point where I just didn't have any more tears."

Once the smoke began to clear, Arizona DPS Paramedic-Officer Eric Tarr was lowered by helicopter to the area to triage any survivors and found what he later called a "moonscape appearance." Everything was black, and he notice a chainsaw blade and a pick ax head with the handle burned away.

As Tarr got closer to the site he reported, "I could hear voices coming from the area of the shelters," but after yelling into the smoke soon came upon charred black human remains. "I walked into the shelter deployment site and determined that the voices I had heard were coming from still functioning radios."

Tarr radioed in his awful discovery, "I have 19 confirmed fatalities."

McDonough told ABC News that he is still processing the "unreal" tragedy and allowed that since it happened, "some days are better than others, some hours are better than others."

"Coming home, that was the worst feeling ever. Knowing that these families would see me, but not anyone else off that crew. No one. I was the only person they're going to see," McDonough said.

But he knows his friends' pain has been released.

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