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

Brendan "Donut" McDonough recounts last acts of 19 fallen granite mountain men.

August 7, 2013, 10:14 AM

Aug. 7, 2013 — -- Five weeks after the worst day of his young life, Brendan McDonough still hears the cell phones that were ringing in the back of his fire truck, the agonizing peal of loved ones desperate to reach his 19 missing buddies in the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fighting a raging wildfire on a scorched Arizona mountainside.

"Whoever didn't bring their phone, I could hear phones ringing, knowing that it was their wives, their family," McDonough recounted in an exclusive interview with ABC News to air on "Good Morning America" today. Additional portions will be broadcast tonight on "World News With Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline".

But by then the 21-year-old elite wildland firefighter -- whom his fellow Hotshots affectionately called "Donut" in a play on his last name -- knew the horrible truth that their own families did not yet know, as he sat in the seat absorbing the magnitude of what was happening.

All 19 of his brother Hotshots had just been killed by the ripping Yarnell Hill blaze in the largest loss of life among firefighters since the 9/11 attacks.

"I sunk. Sunk into my seat, I sunk into myself," he said in the ABC News interview, finally breaking his silence over how the terrible incident unfolded, in which only he survived.

PHOTOS: Brendan 'Donut' McDonough Watched the Roaring Fire Turn on His Friends

Every one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, except for McDonough, was burned alive sometime after 4:30 p.m. on June 30, when the Yarnell Hill Fire suddenly whipped 180 degrees around and cut off their escape route from a scrub brush meadow to a nearby ranch.

Almost two hours after it was reported at 4:47 p.m. that the Hotshots had deployed protective personal shelters, an Arizona state paramedic hiked up to the site of torched chaparral and confirmed the worst.

McDonough survived simply because he'd been chosen that day for an important job -- he was the crew's lookout a half mile away watching "fire behavior" and monitoring weather changes -- and he was able to escape the cascade of flames shooting as high as 50 feet.

Inside the Granite Mountain Hotshots' station house in Prescott, in his first visit only weeks after the catastrophic loss, McDonough felt at ease -- enough to reveal his deep pain over not being with his friends, who were all like family to him, when they died in their boots.

"I asked a million times, 'Why am I sitting here and why isn't someone else? Why aren't they sitting here with me?'" McDonough said.

Covered in soot over his bright yellow protective clothing and heavy boots as darkness fell on June 30, waves of guilt for being the only Hotshot spared death was a gut punch made all the more painful by the chirping phones behind him in the buggy.

Days later, he had a tattoo artist ink the stanzas of an old Gaelic prayer inside his right bicep as a constant reminder of his hope that the fallen "Nineteen," as they're now known in Prescott, have found peace.

New Bill Could Boost Benefits for Some Arizona Hotshot Families

"May the road rise up to meet you..."

All wildfires can become dangerous. But at first, this one on a boulder-strewn hillside at 5,000 feet outside the small town of Yarnell, Ariz. seemed nothing out of the ordinary to the team of dogged firefighters dispatched in their white fire buggies that fateful day from nearby Prescott.

"I mean, just -- a normal workday, I guess," McDonough said he had assumed that morning.


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.

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..."

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.

"...May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields..."

In the five weeks since, Brendan McDonough has been grieving in private and putting on a brave face in public, reading the Hotshots Prayer at a large memorial service attended by families of the fallen, friends and dignitaries including Vice President Biden.

He also appeared at a charity golf outing at Gainey Ranch country club in Scottsdale on Friday that raised more than $100,000 for the Hotshots' families and Yarnell residents who lost their homes.

Asked if he did all he could have, he insisted, "There's nothing I could've done besides have been up on the hill with them and someone else been in my position, to have been with them and died in my boots with them."

Incredibly, McDonough says quitting firefighting is "not an option. You don't quit. You just overcome."

And he is determined not to let down the families of the Nineteen, either. He has attended every funeral and visited each of the Nineteen's families.

"I can't fail them. I can't stop trying because I feel like they somewhat look to me because I'm the only one left," he said.

And when Donut thinks of their fallen, he gazes down at the inked words on his arm, which end with hope.

"...Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand."

To learn more about organizations helping the families of the 19 fallen firefighters, visit Prescott Firefighters Charities and The Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.

CLICK HERE to return to The Investigative Unit homepage.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events