19 promises: A year after Arizona tragedy, firefighter's widow filled with gratitude

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 11:56 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, June 29 2014 11:56 p.m. MDT

Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of Andrew Ashcraft, speaks during an interview at her home ... Andrew Ashcraft was a member of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. He was one of 19 firefighters who died a year ago in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. Juliann moved form Prescott to Queen Creek, Arizona, to help with healing from her loss. Ashcraft laughs as she tells the story behind the mustache photo of her husband as she shows the memorabilia in a room her children call "Daddy's Room." It was suggested she set aside a room displaying Andrew's things to help her heal and remember him.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

YARNELL, Ariz. — There's one room in Juliann Ashcraft's home that serves a solemn, almost sacred purpose.

Dozens of framed pictures of a mustached man with his family and comrades cover the room's walls. An immaculate glass curio cabinet proudly displays a firefighter's helmet, a weathered pair of boots, a charred silicone bracelet and several folded American flags — all carefully arranged.

Somewhat apart, hanging on a wall near the corner, there is a simple framed list, a memento different from the others, bearing the signature of her husband, Andrew Ashcraft.

He was one of 19 firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona. Now, a year later and still struggling to understand, Juliann Ashcraft looks at the photos and memories in the cabinet like they were pieces of an unsolved puzzle.

"It's been a year, and I still can't wrap my head around it," she said.

The 29-year-old mother of four said she hopes to one day make sense of what happened. For now, the thought of losing in one instant her husband, whom she knew since she was eight years old, and 18 other elite firefighters remains a senseless calamity.

"I used to dream of growing old with Andrew, and now I feel guilty for growing old at all," she said.

But grief and uncertainty are obstacles Ashcraft and her children, ages 2-7, are learning to live with a little more each day.

"I still feel broken in a lot of aspects in my life, but I think we're doing OK," she said. "As a family, we're learning what normal is like now and we're taking one day at a time."

'Dad's not coming home'

It was about 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 30, 2013 when Juliann Ashcraft started getting alarming phone messages from friends. Her husband was in his third season with the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Prescott, Arizona. He was on a fire in Yarnell, a small town about 30 miles to the south, but there hadn't been a cause for concern.

The messages, however, kept on coming: "Have you heard from Andrew? Is Andrew OK? When was the last time you heard from him?"

Juliann turned on the news and listened helplessly with her children to reports that all but one or two of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were gone.

Eventually, one of the children asked the unthinkable: "Mom, is Daddy dead?"

She remembers her own conflicted reaction: "I think because I couldn't really believe it, I couldn't cry. I couldn't do anything. And part of me ... was still trying to hold out some sort of hope until I'd heard. The way that I felt inside was a pit in my stomach that I can never explain. ... It was just this complete unknown territory."

For the next three hours, Juliann waited in agonizing incertitude until a county sheriff and a wildfire official came to her home.

"When they walked up, obviously, I knew," she said. "They didn't even say anything, and I just kind of collapsed."

The two officials recounted what was known so far.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were assigned that day to the Yarnell Hill Fire. Intense shifting winds caused the fire to change directions and spread rapidly. Somehow, Andrew Ashcraft and the other firefighters became trapped by the flame front and had to deploy their fire shelters — a cocoon-like foil blanket used to block radiant heat.

Crew member Brendan McDonough, who was on another part of the fire, was Granite Mountain's sole survivor.

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