Updated Sep 30, 2013 - 5:10 pm
State agency investigating firefighters' death
PHOENIX -- A state agency expects to complete its investigation into the deaths of 19 Arizona firefighters by year's end as officials work to determine whether any workplace violations occurred that merit citations or fines.
The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health's review of the accident has been occurring simultaneously, but separately, from the three-month-long investigation into the circumstances surrounding the 19 deaths.
That report by a team of national experts found communications lapses, including a 33-minute gap in radio traffic from the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, in the hour before they died. Released Saturday, it did not determine if the tragedy was avoidable and found that proper procedure was followed.
The ADOSH investigation will determine whether the city of Prescott, which operated the crew, should face fines or citations for the fatalities.
It could take up to six months to complete and should be ready by the end of December, at the latest, Rachel Brockway, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Monday.
She declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
The lightning-sparked blaze began on June 28 and caused little immediate concern because of the remote location. But the blaze quickly grew into an inferno, burning swiftly across pine, juniper and scrub oak and through an area that hadn't experienced a significant wildfire in nearly 50 years.
The 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots arrived on June 30. About nine hours later, 19 members of the crew found themselves trapped by a wall of flames in a brush-choked bowl. They deployed their emergency shelters, but perished in the scorching heat. Only one member of the crew who had been serving as a lookout survived.
Shortly before their deaths, the Granite Mountain crew was positioned in a relatively safe area of previously burned brush on a ridge top, known as "the black." For some unknown reason, and without notifying anyone, the crew moved down the mountainside through an unburned area and found themselves trapped when winds shifted the fire in their direction.
"In this situation, why did they leave the good black and head down the box canyon?" said Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official who has investigated previous wildfire fatalities. "I don't think we'll ever know the answer to that one."
While finding no fault, the report's authors recommended, among other things, that the state look into providing crews with enhanced technology in the field, including GPS devices that could be used to track their movements.
However, experts expressed skepticism that such devices could have helped in this specific scenario.
Mangan said the fire was burning so hot and fast that by the time the crew's exact location was communicated, it would likely have been too late to save them.
He said in previous cases, there is usually at least one surviving firefighter to explain the crew's actions, making it easier for investigators to determine why they took the steps they did in the moments before a fatality.
The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and burned 13 square miles before it was fully contained on July 10.
Also Monday, "The Daily Courier" of Prescott reported that some family members of the men are fighting to keep autopsy records sealed from media scrutiny.
"The Arizona Republic" has filed suit, seeking the release of the records.
The newspaper's attorney, David Bodney, sought to assure the families that the news organization is "extremely sensitive" to the families' privacy concerns and isn't seeking autopsy photos.
However, he explained that "the records are essential to fully understand[ing] what happened and what steps have been taken to investigate what occurred."