The five men killed in the deadliest wildfire disaster in more than a decade were remembered Sunday as both heroes and regular guys at a memorial service attended by more than 10,000 people.
The five, who were part of the crew of Engine 57, were killed Oct. 26 when a wind-driven blaze drove down as they tried to save a house in the rural community of Twin Pines, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. A man is accused of setting the fire.
“They loved doing their jobs, but they also loved going home afterward,” said Jeanne Wade-Evans, a San Bernardino National Forest supervisor. “This time they could not go home.”
Sunday’s memorial was held at a large outdoor arena in the mountains, not far from the area the firefighters protected. It began with a procession of the U.S. Forest Service honor guard with bagpipers and drummers, and a cortege of fire service vehicles.
A huge screen positioned above a stage contained a picture of a firefighter’s boots and the words “Always Remember.”
“In the simple act of lacing up their fire boots, they were actually committing themselves to protect and to serve. We assemble here together a brokenhearted congregation,” said Steve Seltzner, a U.S. Forest Service chaplain who has been meeting with families of the men.
Killed at the scene were firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the captain of Engine 57, died soon after at a hospital. Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, died a few days later.
Fourteen firefighters died battling a wildfire in July 1994 near Glenwood Springs, Colo., according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Last week police arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, and charged him with five counts of murder and various counts of arson for this blaze. Oyler has said he is innocent. Among those who attended Sunday’s service were Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Before the ceremony, the fallen firefighters’ family members stood in front of huge photos of each firefighter surrounded by bouquets of red, white and blue flowers.
In the stands, Beth Fogle, of Idyllwild, cried softly. Fogle said she knew all five well, especially Loutzenhiser, who lived in Idyllwild and was an assistant volleyball coach at the elementary school that three of his five children attended.
“He was strong but gentle, and just a kind man, a wonderful friend to my son,” said Fogle, whose son is also a fire captain.
Peter Brinkerhoff, 28, attended the memorial with 17 other members of the Vandenberg Hot Shots, an elite firefighting group. He said what happened made him question his own career.
“It could just as easily have been anyone else sitting there at that house,” he said of the home the firefighters were trying to save. “It just adds an element of anger, too, that it was intentionally set and totally preventable.”
At the ceremony’s conclusion, a group of Forest Service fixed-wing airplanes and helicopters flew over the amphitheater as bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” The crowd stood at attention.