The streets, freeway overpasses and underpasses in Phoenix Arizona began to fill with people carrying signs and flags as early as 9am on Sunday. There were families holding homemade signs, veterans carrying flags from the branch of the service they represented and more American and Arizona flags than I could count. Anyone traveling through Arizona unaware of the significance of this day may have thought people were waiting for a parade to begin. But for Arizona Sunday was a day of mourning and respect. The entire state was preparing to pay their last respects as the 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew who were killed fighting the fires in Yarnell, Arizona, and were being returned from the medical examiners office in Phoenix to their families in Prescott. The precession was scheduled to start at 11:15am, but didn’t begin until about 12:05pm. The temperatures had risen to near 110 degrees, but that didn’t discourage anyone from turning out.
My family arrived at about 11am and we were located at an underpass near my home approximately 25 miles north of downtown Phoenix. The people above us had hung 6 or 7 American flags from the fencing of the overpass. The overpass was already full of people when we arrived which is why we decided to park below. I began to talk with the people gathering with us. All of us were very aware of the dangers that these men faced and felt compelled to show their families that we will never forget their courage and sacrifice. We also wanted all of the first responders to know that as a community we are so thankful for their willingness to do what they do.
The precession consisted of 19 white hearses each with the name of the fallen firefighter inside printed on a sign in the window. Each car had a representative of the firefighting community inside so that none of the firefighters would be alone until they were returned to their families. A detail of motorcycle police officers lead the precession and a group of fire trucks followed. They made their way through downtown Phoenix beneath an American flag held above the streets by 2 ladder trucks from the Phoenix Fire Department. They passed the State Capitol and then headed north on I-17, the only freeway that goes north out of Phoenix. As they moved north they were greeted by a silent memorial of citizens who lined the side of the freeway as well as all of the overpasses. Even the southbound traffic came to a stop as they passed. Many drivers getting out of their vehicles and placing their hands over their hearts until the precession had fully passed. As they approached us everyone became very quiet. All of us stood completely still, even the children. I watched the veterans hold their salute until the precession had passed. No one spoke until they were out of site.
It was a beautiful moment of respect. The families will never know the names of the thousands who gathered. But they will know that the people of Arizona love and respect the first responders who answer the call of duty every day so that we can live under the blanket of safety that they provide. I have never been more proud of the community I call home.
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