Christians seek to comfort deceased US firefighters' community

(Photo: Reuters / Joshua Lott)A woman prays during a memorial service at Prescott High School for 19 firefighters who perished battling a fast-moving wildfire in Prescott, Arizona July 2, 2013. The 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting team, who died battling a wildfire outside the town of Yarnell on Sunday,turned an otherwise rather ordinary wildfire, one of dozens burning across the western United States, into the most deadly U.S. wildlands blaze in 80 years and left Prescott, the home base of the Hotshots crew, reeling. At least 1,800 people packed a memorial service on the outskirts of town on July 1.

The death of 19 elite firefighters as they battled an Arizona wildfire this week has prompted an outpouring of prayer and support from churches, Christian recovery groups and their community.

Members of the firefighting team, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, perished on June 30 as they tried to deal with a blaze on a mountain in the town of Yarnell.

Most of them were in their 20s.

It is thought that the men were killed because the fire suddenly came toward them due to a sudden change in wind direction.

One survivor of the group, 21-year-old Brendan McDonough, was serving as a lookout on a hilltop and warned his colleagues to get out, according to the UK Daily Mail.

McDonough survived, but the rest of the team members were overcome despite deploying their emergency shelters.

Over three thousand people attended a memorial service on Tuesday in the town of Prescott, the home of the firefighters.

The Associated Press reported that the "service struck a deeply religious tone with preachers urging the crowd to offer the families of the victims their love and support. "

Another memorial service was held the day before in a gymnasium, according to the Prescott Daily Courier newspaper.

The national anthem was sung by a sixth grader, Emily McMahon from Trinity Christian School.

The invocation was given by Paul Jones, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Yarnell. He and his wife Ann were evacuated on Sunday.

A bagpiper closed the service with the song "Amazing Grace."

The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention was one of the groups which deployed chaplains to assist grieving families, according to Baptist Press..

"Our response to hurting families is to help hurting people, not to make Baptists out of them," said Larry Hyde, the Baptist disaster relief director. "We're just out there to support people's needs and share the love of Jesus at a time when their lives are falling apart."

Members of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team were also sent to Prescott, according to the Christian Post.

One of the chaplains being sent is a retired police officer, while another is a long-time firefighter.

"The need for emotional and spiritual care is critical," said Jack Munday, international director of the Billy Graham RRT. "They need to talk. They don't want to put a burden on their family. It's easier for them to talk to someone who's a peer."

He said that "firefighters were like brothers."

"Our hearts go out to the families of those firefighters as well as the fire station."

The Billy Graham RRT had also assisted with relief efforts when tornadoes hit Oklahoma and Texas this spring.

Another group that offered help during the tornadoes was the K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs, a ministry of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC).

LCC and the K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs are scheduled to arrive in Prescott on July 4. The dogs are Golden Retrievers, which are intelligent and have calm dispositions.

LCC says in its brochure that the dogs can offer entertainment or a welcome distraction from pain and infirmity, help people feel less lonely and depressed and make it easier for two strangers to talk.

Several media reports have noted the stories of each of the firefighters. Some describe the personal faith of those who died in the inferno.

The Catholic Sentinel reported that John Percin Jr., aged 24, was a Catholic from Oregon.

His family issued a statement after his death:

"John was a brave and courageous man who never hesitated to put others before himself. He was loved by many, and he will always be remembered. He is an inspiration to us all. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of his fallen brothers and their families."

The National Catholic Register reported that Catholics in Prescott were overcome by shock, disbelief and depression.

"God allows bad things to happen to good people, and I don't think anyone knows the true answer as to why, "said Father Darrin Merlino, parochial administrator of Sacred Heart parish.

"I don't know that there is anything I can say to comfort people. This has been the worst two weeks of my priesthood."

Merlino said that he suspected that several of the firefighters were Catholic. He said many of his parishioners knew some of them.

"We don't know for sure, because a lot of people in their early 20s don't register with a parish. They just show up."

Dustin DeFord, 24, was a pastor's son from Montana, according to the Los Angeles Times. His father was a volunteer firefighter as well.

In addition, several of his brothers became firefighters.

His mother told the Times, ""He was not afraid of death. There was no fear. He had a simple faith in Jesus — that whatever he chose, it was going to be all right."

A complete list of those who died was released Monday afternoon:

Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.

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