Dark monsoon clouds and gusty winds arrived as the coffin of William Warneke, one of 19 firefighters killed in fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire, was lowered into the ground at the Marana Mortuary Cemetery on July 10.
It was as if nature was in sync with the emotions of the hundreds of people who arrived to pay respect to the 25-year-old hometown hero.
Warneke and 18 others in the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew were killed when the blazing Prescott-area fire suddenly changed direction due to unexpected, heavy winds.
It was the most deadly wildland fire in 80 years. Only one member of the crew survived.
Warneke’s body was flown in from Prescott to Marana via an Army National helicopter before his coffin was transferred to the top of a brush truck, which led the procession 6.5 miles to the Marana cemetery; the streets lined with supporters and American flags.
Warneke’s widow, 24-year-old Roxanne Warneke, arrived to the funeral service in the first truck along with the coffin – a somber, grievous look on her face. She is expecting their first child in December. The two were high school sweethearts and married in 2008.
The rest of Warneke’s family arrived in the trailing seven trucks, promptly bursting into tears and hugging one another as they stepped out from the vehicles.
More than 60 fire trucks and accompanying firemen from across the state and country took part in the procession and funeral service.
“It’s one of the defining characteristics of the fire service, that while we all work for different agencies and although we may not have known Warneke personally, we do know the type of person he was,” said Golder Ranch Fire District Battalion Chief Josh Hurguy.
Warneke’s older brother, Fred, an active Navy SEAL, detailed during the service what type of person his younger brother was.
“As his older brother, it was different – I always looked up to him,” he said, his voice cracking. “Everything he did was just a little bit better, he was more squared away…I’ll model the rest of my life after William, and we will remember him always.”
In addition to the numerous firemen and women present, members of various police departments, the Border Patrol, and United States Marine Corps were also in attendance.
Before becoming a Hotshot, Warneke was a four-year member of the Marine Corps, where he served one tour in Iraq.
A group of Marines marched on his behalf to the sound of “Taps” before firing off several blank rounds toward the sky in his honor.
Still, Roxanne’s eyes rarely left the casket, and only did so after the crewmembers of the Granite Mountain Hotshots issued Warneke’s “last call,” before fellow firefighters lowered his casket into the ground and out of sight.
“On behalf of the Tucson community and all local fire agencies, it is with deep sadness and sorrow to report William Warneke of Granite Mountain Hotshots, Crew 7, has completed his last call,” the call rang out. “He has returned home to his lord to fulfill his new duty as an angel to watch over his friends, family, and fellow firefighters. He will be forever in our hearts.”
“Amazing Grace” played on bagpipes in the background as Warneke’s coffin disappeared from sight.
As with Warneke’s family and friends, many of the uniformed personnel grew visibly distraught during the final moments of the service.
His mother, Kathy, carried the folded American flag away with her as the funeral drew to a close.
It was a fitting service for a man who was known as loving, caring, and selfless.
“It was truly an honor and privilege for me to serve, especially from the point of view of the family,” said Chaplain Tim LaPorte, who led the service.
It was the third firefighter funeral Northwest Fire District Captain Adam Goldberg has attended in his career.
“It was moving, it was inspiring, and in one sense, it was still just as gut wrenching, in every sense of the word,” he said. “But, it was a great memorial for William, and a great opportunity for the family, friends, and the fire service to say goodbye.”
The Yarnell Hill Fire has since been 100 percent contained.