By Brian Ross, James Gordon Meek, and Cindy Galli
Five weeks after the worst day of his young life, Brendan McDonough still hears the cell phones that were ringing in the back of his fire truck, the agonizing peal of loved ones desperate to reach his 19 missing buddies in the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fighting a raging wildfire on a scorched Arizona mountainside.
But by then, the 21-year-old elite wildland firefighter – whom his fellow Hotshots affectionately called “Donut” in a play on his last name – knew the horrible truth that their own families did not yet know, as he sat in the seat absorbing the magnitude of what was happening.
All 19 of his brother Hotshots had just been killed by the devestating Yarnell Hill blaze in the largest loss of life among firefighters since the 9/11 attacks.
Each of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, except for McDonough, was burned alive sometime after 4:30 p.m. on June 30, when the Yarnell Hill Fire suddenly whipped 180 degrees around and cut off their escape route from a scrub brush meadow to a nearby ranch.
Almost two hours after it was reported at 4:47 p.m. that the Hotshots had deployed protective personal shelters, an Arizona state paramedic hiked up to the site of torched chaparral and confirmed the worst.
McDonough survived simply because he’d been assigned that day to be the crew’s lookout a half mile away watching fire behavior and monitoring weather changes. He was able to escape the cascade of flames shooting as high as 50 feet.
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