(OSV News) — Ten years ago, Claretian Father Darrin Merlino had just become a first-time pastor. He had previously been parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Parish in Prescott, Arizona, but his predecessor suffered a stroke and Father Merlino was thrust into his new role.
Within two weeks, on June 30, 2013, he found himself ministering to people affected by one of the greatest tragedies to hit the town in which Sacred Heart is the only Catholic church: The Granite Mountain Hotshots lost almost their entire crew — 19 of 20 men — battling the Yarnell Hill Fire. The lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, wrote the 2016 book “My Lost Brothers” to commemorate his fallen comrades.
“One of my parishioners comes in — young kid — and he goes, ‘Oh, Father, I’m really depressed.’ I ask, ‘Why?'” recalled Father Merlino. “One of my roommates is one of the Hotshots,” he recalled the young man responding.
That roommate was John Percin Jr., a 24-year-old Catholic man who had attended Sacred Heart. Other Catholics among the fallen the priest knew of included Grant McKee and Kevin Woyjeck. Father Merlino asked the young man to pass his contact information along to Percin’s father.
“John’s father came in, and we spoke and he just — poor guy — broke down,” said Father Merlino, who now serves in Los Angeles and hosts the video series TV series “Hound of Heaven.” “It broke my heart just beyond words, made me cry. It was a very emotional experience.”
Hotshots remembered in service
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were remembered 10 years later at a public memorial service in downtown Prescott on June 30 and with a memorial Mass at Sacred Heart that evening, celebrated by current pastor Claretian Father Raj Britto.
Leading up to the memorial Mass, the parish published “the wife of the then-superintendent of the Laguna Interagency Hotshot Crew in California. Organizers displayed 19 candles and white roses on a table during the liturgy for each of the fallen. Parish manager Jim Wren read the names while another parishioner rang a bell after each name.
“Many people approached me afterwards — some of them who knew some of the guys — and were very appreciative that we had the service,” said Wren, who also serves as a board member for the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew Learning and Tribute Center. “One family member attended and a bunch of our volunteers from our center attended it. They were all very moved by the service.”
Wren, who is originally from Connecticut, first learned of the Granite Mountain Hotshots when he was visiting family in Prescott 10 years ago. The day before the tragedy, he went hiking with his wife and son and suffered heat stroke. After Wren’s wife called 911, firefighters found them and treated him. As they carried him out, they distracted him by telling him about the growing Yarnell Hill Fire and about “this elite team of Hotshots” preparing to fight it. The next day, after Wren returned home with orders to take it easy, the Hotshots died battling the blaze.
A hotshot crew is a type of elite interagency firefighting crew specializing in wildland fires. While most crews around the country are a part of state or federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were a part of the Prescott Fire Department, and many city firefighters had previously served the department as Hotshots.
“Even though I didn’t know any of them, I just felt like I was so connected because I had learned about them through my own traumatic experience,” Wren recalled.
When he returned home the next week, he established contact with the firefighters who helped him directly. While living on the East Coast, he became an advocate for wildland firefighting and fire prevention, speaking to schools and government entities. During one of his many return trips to Prescott, he hiked to the Hotshots’ fatality site with one of the firefighters who had saved him and eventually became his friend. It was then that Wren discerned moving to Arizona and applied for the parish manager position.
“I realized at that time that that had been God’s plan all along for me to come work for the Church — which I never did before,” he told OSV News.
Now living in Prescott, Wren continues his advocacy for wildland fire awareness and prevention. The center where Wren volunteers as a board member is not only dedicated to the Hotshots, but also helps educate people about wildland fires.
Devastation of wildfires
“What happened to these guys in this tragedy raised a lot of awareness here about how devastating wildfires can be, how quick things can change during a fire,” he said. “The community, after going through this, is much more aware because of these guys. After this community experienced this, it just raised a lot of awareness about how we can all have an impact on preventing wildland fires in the future.”
The Hotshots’ death is the second most devastating incident for a city fire department, next only to the 9/11 attacks. While the numbers for the 2001 terrorist attacks far exceed the 19 killed 10 years ago, because Prescott is a small town, the city lost a quarter of its fire department.
“A lot of people don’t recognize that in one day, we lost 25% of our department in one incident,” said Prescott Fire Chief Holger Durre, who also served as the media contact for the city’s 10th anniversary commemorations of the fire.
At the time of the Yarnell Hill Fire, Durre was a firefighter in Colorado, but the scope of the tragedy impacted first responders throughout the country, he recalled.
“Every firefighter has that piece of service in their heart, and in the back of their mind there is the understanding that there could come a time when in the normal course of your work, you’d have to lay down your life,” said Durre. “So, instantly, when that event happened, I had an understanding of 19 people whose families are now forever changed and were forever impacted. For most of us, it causes a recommitment to what we signed up to do.”
Connection to God and community
Although not Catholic, Durre said he recognizes “God moments” in his work, especially in moving to Prescott after the tragedy.
“The reason why this story resonates in so many ways is that the magnitude of the event created the ability for others from outside the fire service world and outside of Prescott to be challenged to our common humanity,” the chief told OSV News. “There’s a piece of this that speaks to how closely connected these folks were with every member in Prescott. The way that Prescott responds to tragedy is that it builds more community.”
The Hotshots’ memory lives on at Sacred Heart. Parishioners and visitors are reminded of their legacy every time they walk into the church and see a metal plaque in the shape of a badge with their names listed. For Father Merlino, the tragedy helped shape him into the pastor he is today.
“It was the first time I dealt with an international tragedy literally affecting me and my parishioners, personally,” reflected Father Merlino. “One of the things I learned was to be present for the father of that son who died, John. I gave him permission just to be. He didn’t have to worry about the cameras being on him, to talk about his feelings, he could just cry and just be a parent who was hurting.”