Emotional Farewell for 19 Fallen Ariz. Firefighters

PHOTO: 19 fallen firefighters line the front of the stage before a memorial service PlayMichael Chow/AP Photo
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Nineteen white roses. Nineteen rings of a bell. Nineteen pairs of empty boots and lonely black helmets.

One by one, 19 fallen Arizona firefighters were today remembered as heroes by a crowd of several thousand packed inside a Prescott, Ariz., arena for a final farewell.

"They were protectors defending our communities, safeguarding our friends, family and strangers alike. They were 19 heroes gone at the turn of the wind," said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

The faces of each of the men, members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, adorned posters that looked out hauntingly at the crowd. All were killed last week while fighting an out-of-control wildfire in the Yarnell hills northwest of Phoenix.

It was the single biggest loss of firefighters battling a wildfire in 80 years and the most killed in any single incident since Sept. 11, 2001.

"These men were some of the strongest, most disciplined, tenacious, physically fit men in the world. An elite unit in every sense of that phrase," said Vice President Joe Biden.

"The 19 who fell were not only heroes on Sunday, June 30, 2013, to you the families," Biden said. "They were heroes long before we knew their names."

President Obama, who spoke this year at memorial services for victims of other high-profile national tragedies, was not in attendance. White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that Biden's "personal experience" with firefighters made him the most "fitting representative of the administration."

Biden, who said he did not personally know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, described feeling a bond with the men through his past interactions with firefighters who "saved my life" and helped members of his family.

Other notable dignitaries in the crowd included Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; Sen. John and Cindy McCain; Sen. Jeff Flake; and Rep. Paul Gosar.

The Hotshots were killed when shifting winds led to a rapid swirl of fire that trapped them on a hillside while fighting the flames. The men deployed their emergency shelters, but they were unable to withstand the severe heat and smoke. The men died of burns and inhalation problems, an initial autopsy found.

The bodies of the firefighters returned to Prescott on Sunday after a 125-mile procession from a Phoenix medical examiner's office through the state. A line of white hearses was greeted by thousands of people, who lined highways and overpasses with American flags.

One member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots survived the blaze. Brendan McDonough, 21, was acting as lookout for the crew. When the winds shifted over Yarnell, he warned his colleagues, but it was too late.

In a powerful conclusion to the service, McDonough recited the "Hot Shots Prayer" in memory of his fallen comrades.

"For if this day on the line, I should answer death's call," McDonough prayed, "Lord, bless my Hotshot crew, my family, one and all."

"Thank you. I miss my brothers," he said.

The fire they fought is now under control. The first of the 19 funerals are expected to begin later this week.