PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- The idea to drape the bodies of 19 dead firefighters in American flags came from Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher, shortly after the men were found dead.
"He was overwhelmed. He was down there at the time the evacuations were in progress, then when he met with the staff and learned of some firsthand details with folks on the scene that the firefighters passed away, he made the decision we need to bring them down the hill in honor," agency spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn said.
Authorities reached Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and she had her staff rush the flags to the site, hours after the tragedy on June 30, D’Evelyn said.
A few photos were snapped, and the moment was memorialized. Everyone agreed the pictures would remain private. Then one appeared anonymously Thursday on Facebook: A stark image of the victims lying next to one another in two rows on the scorched earth, American flags draped over the remains. Several media outlets, including the Arizona Republic and USA Today, published the photo on Friday.
For family members and first responders, the picture is both haunting and a comfort, providing a brief window into how fellow firefighters and law enforcement tried to bring dignity to a situation that was unbearable.
"I personally felt comfort seeing how taken care of they were and honored at the site," said Paul Bourgeois, a Phoenix-area fire chief who is acting as a spokesman in Prescott for the families.
The families "just feel it was a violation of privacy," he said.
Wade Ward, a Prescott fire spokesman, said he had taken similar images and others at the scene, and had met with families of the firefighters and asked them if they wanted to see the photos of the American flag-draped bodies. Some weren’t ready, but they said one day they would be, and when that day came, the photos could be released to the public.
The American flags accompanied the victims as their remains were transported in individual hearses Sunday back to Prescott. They will be given to their families.
The flags were just one of many efforts to honor the fallen firefighters. Their bodies have also never been left alone, a tradition that most firefighters follow whenever one of their own is lost. Someone stands watch with the bodies at the morgue and accompanies them as they are transported.
Randy Lovely, senior vice president for Republic media, said in an email Saturday that the newspaper had several careful and thoughtful discussions before publishing the photo, including conversations with an ethicist.
"Throughout our conversations two issues were top of mind -- honoring our responsibility to chronicle the events of last Sunday but always being mindful of the huge sacrifice of life," Lovely wrote. "Ultimately, we felt that the picture showed the deliberate care and attention given to honor the firefighters while also filling in more details of the events as they occurred. I believe the picture is incredibly moving and a tribute to the 19 men."
He said that the Republic doesn’t know who exactly took the picture, "but we know that only a limited number of officials had access to the scene."
Officials confirmed the contents of the picture to The Associated Press, but said they didn’t know who took it and declined to release another version. The AP decided to release the photo because it had already been seen widely and showed the effort first responders took to honor the dead.
Another photo first posted to Facebook on Saturday, this time by the Prescott Fire Department, shows the site where the fighters were killed. The aerial shot looks like a moonscape, with no vegetation recognizable on the blackened earth. A thin road built by a bulldozer cuts through the middle of the land, stopping where the bodies were found.
The firefighters were killed a week ago in the Yarnell Hill fire, sparked by lightning on June 28. It was 90 percent contained Sunday, after destroying more than 100 homes in Yarnell and burning about 13 square miles. The town remained evacuated Sunday.
The crew of elite Hotshots was working to build a fire line between the blaze and Yarnell when erratic winds suddenly shifted the wildfire’s direction, causing it to hook around the firefighters and cut off access to a ranch that was to be their safety zone.
The men were in the prime of their lives, and many left behind wives -- some pregnant -- and small children.