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Maybe, thought Willis, they’re just out of radio contact. Maybe, he hoped, his friends would walk out of that smoke at any minute.
Helicopters circled the area in an attempt to douse the flames. But the smoke was so thick crews could only guess at where to drop their loads.
As time wore on, Willis got back on the phone. He called his wife first, and then the head of the Prescott Fire Department.
He asked them to start praying, too.
Back in Prescott, Juliann Ashcraft was watching television with her children — Ryder, 6; Shiloh, 4; Tate Andrew, 2; and Choice, 1.
Andrew Ashcraft was only in his third season with the Hotshots, but he’d been working toward the job for years. As a teenager, he attended fire camps. In high school, he’d spend hours after classes studying fire science.
While his love affair with firefighting predated his romance with Juliann, there was no question which passion burned hotter. The couple was still playful. When one would step outside the house for something, the other would lock the door and not open it until the exiled party performed a dance in front of the living room window.
When Andrew was home, he was the center of the family. He insisted on tucking the children in each night and leading them in their prayers. And when he was away, Juliann did her best to keep up their routines — including their daily family ritual of taking turns talking about their happiest moment of the day, and their saddest.
It was about 7 p.m. when a television announcer came on with the report: A Hotshot crew had been overrun near Yarnell. Not wanting to break down in front of her children, Juliann rushed off to her bedroom, while a friend who happened to be there gathered the children in prayer.
A couple of miles away, Colleen Turbyfill was scanning Facebook when a news alert popped up about a Hotshot crew. Her stepson, Travis, was a member of the Granite Mountain team.
He’d been just 4 years old when he literally burst into her life. She was eating pizza with friends when the boy rushed up to her and asked if she could sew a button back on his shirt.
In 1990, she married Travis’ father and adopted the precocious little boy who, even then, knew what he wanted to be one day. When Travis was in kindergarten, he drew a picture of a fire truck and titled it, "When I grow up."
"I want to be a fire man," he wrote. "I will fire fight the fires."
Strangely, he did not draw the typical red hook-and-ladder truck, but rather a pale green vehicle that closely resembles the type the Granite Mountain crew used.
Colleen had last seen Travis just days before, when he returned from working another blaze. That fire had threatened her own parents’ home nearby. For the first time, the danger seemed too close.
"I know that you love it," she told him. "But I hate it now."
He had been saying all season that this would be his last as a Hotshot. Still dressed in his fire gear and reeking of smoke, he had wrapped Colleen in a bear hug and told her not to worry.
"We’ve got a great crew," the 27-year-old father of two young girls said. "I love what I do, and we’re going to be OK."
Now she wondered if that were true. At 7:25 p.m., Colleen grabbed her phone and texted Travis’ wife, Stephanie.
"Do you know where Travis is?"Next Page >
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