Brendan McDonough believes everything happens for a reason
Originally Published: August 7, 2013 6 a.m.
He knew he wanted to be a firefighter ever since he moved to Prescott when he was 13 years old.So when the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots Crew hired Brendan McDonough on as a seasonal in 2011 at the age of 19 - after he had completed wildland firefighting classes at Yavapai College and the Arizona Wildfire Academy - it was a dream come true."I was ecstatic," he recalled. "I was super excited. I felt blessed." He graduated from Prescott High School with one of his fellow hotshots, Bob Caldwell, but working from April to December he quickly became close to all of the 19 other hotshots on his crew. "It wasn't just a job, it was a brotherhood," he said. "A lot of people don't understand that. "You sleep next to these people, you wake with them, you eat with them."The last thing he ever expected to be doing was talking to news media as the only survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. He resisted it for about a month.Ironically, as he spoke to The Daily Courier for about an hour recently, it became clear that the tenets Brendan learned from his fellow crewmembers are helping him cope with their death.Brendan had nothing but deep respect for his crew, including Superintendent Eric Marsh and Captain Jesse Steed. Like just about every other wildland firefighter, Brendan didn't name names, just titles, because he felt the crew was one."I wouldn't have traded the years I spent with those men for anything in this world," Brendan said. "They made me the man, and father I am today. How successful I am physically, emotionally, spiritually - I owe it to them."The 2013 fire season was similar to others for the crew until it was called to help save its own community from the explosive Doce fire. The blaze ignited near Prescott May 18 and roared up the crew's namesake Granite Mountain. Authorities evacuated 460 homes, but firefighters were able to save the homes and even a world record tree.The Granite Mountain Hotshots got the assignment to save an alligator juniper on Granite Mountain that was the co-champion largest tree of its kind on record, alongside another Prescott National Forest tree. Brendan remembers thinking it must be a special tree for such an assignment. The crew cleared vegetation around it, then hung out for lunch and took photos.The extremely hot fire burned right up to the line that the hotshots dug around the ancient juniper."It's a marvelous tree," Brendan said. "Certain people probably wouldn't care, but I know we did."Brendan was ill on Friday and Saturday, June 28-29, but returned to work with his crew in time for the Yarnell Hill wildfire assignment early on the morning of June 30.There were some things he didn't want to discuss about that day with The Daily Courier, but he described much of it in detail.His superiors were briefed on the fire behavior and weather conditions and passed that information on to the crew. Their goal was to create a safe anchor point from the southern burned-out heel of the fire, slowly moving to the northeast along the fire's eastern flank.The crew hiked about 1.5 hours into its assignment to methodically create the safe anchor point, and Eric scouted ahead.Brendan was assigned to be the lookout for that Sunday afternoon. Eric and Jesse pointed out a good spot for his initial lookout position. They also were talking with the Blue Ridge Hotshots superintendent and captain from the Coconino National Forest about the fire activity.The Blue Ridge Hotshots crew gave Brendan a ride on an ATV to the base of the lookout spot and helped pick out a good location too, Brendan said. They offered to give him a ride out if he needed it.Brendan and a Prescott Fire Department spokesman declined to mark those locations on maps.Brendan said he had visual contact with his crew. He looked for trigger points that would signal the need to re-evaluate what he and the crew were doing, and whether their positions remained safe.As the lookout, Brendan would measure weather conditions hourly, scan radio traffic, watch the fire and the crew, and relay information back to the crew."The fire was moving away from us" initially, Brendan said.About 2:45 or 2:50 p.m., he heard over his radio that updated weather information was coming. Since it was almost time for Brendan to conduct his weather measurement at the top of the hour, Jesse said he'd listen to the radio information while Brendan checked the weather.Jesse then related that the crew could expect a 180-degree wind shift and wind gusts of 50-60 mph."Once I heard that, I knew the fire was going to change rapidly, and he understood that too," Brendan said.Brendan was closer to the flames than his crew."I could already see the wind had shifted and I had met my trigger point to re-evaluate where I was, and I needed to find a different position," he recalled.He radioed Eric and Jesse that he needed to move to a new spot."They told me they could see what was coming, they could see the fire's edge and they were aware of what was happening with the fire and where I was at, and how close I was," Brendan said. He started making his way back to the road where the Blue Ridge Hotshots dropped him off from an ATV. "I turned around and I looked back at the fire and I can just see smoke building, and it was starting to gain a lot of potential to move toward us," he said.He radioed Jesse again. He remembers Jesse telling him, "I can see what's going on, Brendan. Just be safe and make sure everything's good for you.'"As he walked down the road, Brendan was getting ready to radio the Blue Ridge Hotshots just as they pulled up and gave him a ride.He handed his radio to the Blue Ridge superintendent, who then relayed to Eric and Jesse that his crew would move the Granite Mountain buggies to a safer location. The Blue Ridge superintendent told Brendan it would be safer for him to stay with his crew."I told my superintendent and captain if they need anything, give me a call, that I'll see them soon," Brendan said.He worked with the Blue Ridge Hotshots to clear out vegetation from a line a bulldozer had cut through the brush even closer to the fire than his previous lookout position."In this job you're supposed to always remain flexible, and when I left, my position was compromised and my safety, and my crew understood and they were comfortable with me leaving, knowing they could see the fire," Brendan said.But by around 4:15 or 4:30 p.m., resources were starting to pull off the fire."People on their own were doing it," Brendan said. "It just wasn't a safe area."The fire was exploding."I've never experienced a storm of that magnitude," he said. "I've never seen winds like that. It literally chooses which way it wants to go. There's nothing that stops it."The Blue Ridge Hotshots backed off and parked along Highway 89 in Yarnell. On the radio, Brendan told Eric and Jesse their buggies were safe, "and once again if they need anything just give me a call and I'll see them soon. "And that's the last time I talked to them."Then he heard Eric's voice on the radio."I had heard my superintendent talking to the IC (incident commander) about them having to deploy (shelters) and to prepare a deployment site, and that was the last time that I heard my superintendent's voice," Brendan said."When I heard they had to deploy, I was crushed mentally and emotionally," Brendan said. "I didn't know what to do...It was just a horrible, freak accident..."You know you can die on this job...but it's in the back of your head because if you always think about it, it's going to weigh you down."In the coming weeks, Brendan read the Hot Shot's Prayer at the official memorial service for his fallen brothers, then tried to attend as many of their funerals as he could. He's stayed in close contact with the families that he grew to know during his hotshot days."They've all expressed their love to me and how happy they are that I'm here," he said. "It hurts to hear that from someone who just lost their husband and their brother and their family member."People throughout the community of Prescott and all over the country have written to tell Brendan how they are proud of him and want him to succeed. Some tell him God has a plan. He agrees, but doesn't know what that plan is."That's something I'll just have to live out," he said. "I'll do my best."He learned a lot about God from his fellow hotshots."I felt moved spiritually and motivated by the people I worked with to be a better person, to be the best I could be," he said. "You don't feel invincible, you know your limits, but you know anything you want to put your mind to for the better good of God and for the community, you can do."Brendan has seen plenty of news articles about the hotshots, but he doesn't want to talk about them."I'll make a statement that I'll always stand behind my 19 brothers and support them, and I'll make it known that there was no bad decision made," he said. "That no one's at fault for what happened."And I will never forget that day, and I'll make sure that they're remembered."I'll make it known that I was there and I know what happened...there was a lot of other people that were there and knew what happened, and that it was just an accident."Like anyone would do, Brendan has wondered why. Why did this happen? Why was he the only one to survive?"What everyone calls it is 'survivor's guilt,'" he said. "At first yeah, I felt like, 'Why me? Why did this happen? Why am I still here?' But I know there's a reason and a plan for everything, and if I continue to stay positive and do the right things, that I'll be able to live that out."But if I dwell on that day and if I be negative, you know that's not going to get me anywhere. That's not going to help anyone," including his 2-year-old daughter. "That's not going to remember my brothers the right way."I know what they wanted from me. They wanted me to be the best firefighter I can be, and that's what I'm going to do." City officials didn't respond to requests about Brendan's status with the department.Brendan said he doesn't believe it's his place as a seasonal employee to offer advice about whether the city reorganizes a Granite Mountain Hotshots crew. He knows he wants to be a firefighter, whether wildland or structural, but he doesn't know if he wants to be a hotshot next year again."I love fighting wildland fires but I loved fighting them with the people I did," he said. "That's going to be hard to fill."At the end of his interview, Brendan wanted to send a message to his beloved community of Prescott about the families of his fallen brothers."They need this community 10, 20 years down the road, not just next week, next month, next year," he said. "They're going to need a strong community for life."Here are two videos of Brendan's interview.