Monday, July 1, 2013

19 crosses high above: for the firefighters who lost their lives today

Nineteen Prescott firefighters died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona today.

Nineteen.  The whole hotshot crew.

File photo of Granite Mountain Hotshots by Connor Radnovich

This has happened before.  1949.  A crew of fire jumpers died while fighting the Mann Gulch Fire in the Helena National Forest, Montana.  This same horrific fate has happened before.

Years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful folk compilation by Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, and Lucy Kaplansky called Cry Cry Cry and this album included a song written by James Keelaghan, Cold Missouri Waters.  The song is the account of the Mann Gulch tragedy from the viewpoint of R. Wagner Dodge, the foreman of the crew.  What Dodge did when he was faced in the circumstance these brave men must've been in today--when the fire jumped the safe zone and headed for the men--was set an escape fire between him and the large fire and roll in the ashes of the fire he'd set.  He yelled to his men to join him, it was their only shot at survival, and not one man listened.  The crew ran for the top of the mountain and all but two--the youngest of the crew if I remember correctly--were burned alive.  Dodge lived to help carry the bodies of his men off of that mountain.

Norman Maclean wrote a wonderful book about Dodge and his men called Young Men and Fire.  The stories in his novel are so vivid.  One in particular stays with me: the two men who survived by running to the top of the mountain were so badly burned that their lungs felt as if they were on fire and they were so parched they drank the juices from a can of potatoes.  These were young boys; 15, 16-years-old.

The song is one of my favorites, although I haven't thought about it for quite a while until tonight.

1AM is approaching and I can't stop feeling for these men who died today.  At midnight I sneaked out of bed and brought my camera and guitar down into the basement to sing the song that James Keelaghan wrote for Dodge's men in honor of these brave souls who perished in Arizona.

Here are the lyrics:

My name is Dodge but then you know that
It's written on the chart there at the foot end of the of the bed
They think I'm blind that I can't read it
I've read it every word and every word it says is death
So confession Is that the reason that you came
Get it off my chest before I check out of the game
Since you mention it well there's thirteen things I'll name
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters

August 49 North Montana
The hottest day on record the forest tinder dry
Lightning strikes in the mountains
I was crew chief at the jump base
I prepared the boys to fly
Pick the drop zone C47 comes in low
Feel the tap upon your leg that tells you go
See the circle of the fire down below
Fifteen of us dropped above the cold Missouri waters

Gauged the fire I'd seen bigger
So I ordered them to side hill we'd fight it from below
We'd have our backs to the river
We'd have it licked by morning even if we took it slow
But the fire crowned jumped the valley just ahead
There was no way down headed for the ridge instead
Too big to fight it we'd have to fight that slope instead
Flames one step behind above the cold Missouri waters

Sky had turned red, smoke was boiling
Two hundred yards to saftey
Death was fifty yards behind
I don't know why I just thought it
I struck a match to waist high grass running out of time
Tried to tell them step into this fire I've set
We can't make it this is the only chance you'll get
But they cursed me
Ran for the rocks above instead
I lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters

Then when I rose like the phoenix
In that world reduced to ashes
There was none but two survived
I stayed that night and one day after
Carried bodies to the river
Wondering how I stayed alive
Thirteen stations of the cross to mark their fall
I've had my say I'll confess to nothing more
I'll join them now those that they left me long before
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters


For the nineteen lost men and their families, may you find peace.