Hotshot Leader Didn't Talk on Phone in Hours Before Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire Tragedy, Wife States

Granite Mountain Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh did not make or receive cell phone calls in the three hours leading up to the burn-over that claimed his life along with 18 other members of his crew during the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, his wife Amanda Marsh tells New Times.

The question of whether Marsh was in cellphone communication with fire commanders in the hours leading up to the tragedy has lingered for more than two years after two state investigations failed to examine his phone records.

"There was nothing after 1:11 p.m.," Amanda Marsh said. "That call was with Todd Abel." Abel was a senior commander directing fire-suppression operations.

Abel has told investigators that he had a phone discussion with Marsh at that time to discuss a disagreement Marsh had with another fire commander.

But the call was about three hours before the Granite Mountain Hotshots moved from a safe zone on a ridge in the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell and descended into a box canyon, where the crew was trapped by flames about 4:40 p.m.

Amanda Marsh contacted New Times on December  three days after it was reported that her husband's phone arrived with his body at the Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner on July 1 but was not later included as evidence collected by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office.

The YCSO collected other phones that arrived with the bodies of hotshots and sent them to the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center for analysis to determine whether data could be recovered.

Amanda Marsh said a Prescott firefighter later gave her Eric's phone a few weeks after the fire. The firefighter, who she said was not in a command position, met her near the Yavapai County Courthouse in downtown Prescott.

"The phone was destroyed," she said. "I threw it into a garbage can near the square."

Amanda Marsh also said there were no text messages:. "Eric used a flip phone and it was difficult for him to text." 

She said her husband had only one cell phone. She noted that sometimes the crew took a satellite phone into remote areas, but she didn't believe the satellite phone was used in Yarnell.

No one from the Serious Accident Investigation Team contracted by the state to conduct an investigation into the disaster ever contacted her to obtain Eric's cell phone records, she said.

The SAIT released its Serious Accident Investigation Report on September 28, 2013. The report found that no one did anything wrong, despite the fact the hotshots were killed in a box canyon, which wild-land firefighters consider deathtraps.

Retired wildfire death investigator Dick Mangan has sharply criticized the SAIT for failing to obtain cell-phone records, not only from Marsh but from everyone working on the fire on June 30.

Use of cell phones during wildfires has become more common, but is a source of controversy since crucial decisions could be made privately that typically made over radio channels that many firefighters and their commanders heard.

Amanda Marsh said she declined to provide the cell phone records in the past to New Times because she was trying to move on with her life.

She also said she knew the records didn't show any communications between her husband and fire commanders in the moments leading up to the crucial decision about 4 p.m. to leave their safety zone.

The crew was attempting to reach another safety zone at Boulder Springs Ranch, on the outskirts of Yarnell. Darrell Willis, former Prescott Fire Department Wldlands Division chief, who oversaw the Granite Mountain crew, has said he believed the crew was moving to re-engage with the fire that was sweeping through Yarnell destroying more than 100 homes.

The men were trapped by a wall flame about 4:40 p.m. and deployed their fire shelters, but there was no chance of survival from the 2,000-degree inferno.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health in December 2013 issued three citations and levied fines against the Arizona Forestry Division totaling $559,000 for its management of the fire.

But like the SAIT commanders, Amanda Marsh said ADOSH investigators never contacted her about Eric's phone records.

The Forestry Division reached a global settlement agreement last June 29 with ADOSH and 12 of the 13 families of the deceased hotshots who had sued the state. The settlement called for the state to pay $670,000 to the families, with $50,000 going to each of the 12 families that settled and $10,000 to each of the remaining ones.

The Forestry Division admitted to no wrongdoing in managing the fire.