They were members of an elite force, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The best of the best.
But Sunday, while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire, the fire came too fast, too suddenly, for even the best of the best to react in time.
The Hotshots, based out of Prescott, moved from fire to fire throughout the season, stepping in at the front lines of the blaze to do the toughest work.
"Emotionally, we're devastated," said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, who said the single survivor from the 20-man crew escaped only because he was in a different place from the others. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet. I mean, right now, we're in crisis."
Hotshot crews are specially trained for wildfires, keeping themselves in peak physical condition in order to deal with the toughest tasks of combating the blazes.
They are, Fraijo explained, "the people who literally go out on the fire line and attack these with tools... wehre they are right there in the middle of the incident."
The Hotshots describe their training grueling but necessary to endure extreme situations. To be hired, they must past the Arduous Work Capacity Test, also known as the pack test, plus maintain the ability to run 1.5 miles in 10 minutes and 35 seconds, do 40 sit-ups and 25 pushups in a minute each, and seven pull-ups.
"Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure," their website describes. "We believe in rigorous physical and mental training, which allows us to perform at the optimum level in any location and under any circumstances."
Officials declined to release specific details of the crew, but they were well-known around Prescott.
"Growing up in a small town, like I did, too, you know people on those hotshot crews,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “My brother was on one of those a few years ago. This is tragic. It really is, anywhere, but in a small town where everybody knows everybody, this is going to hurt for a long time.”
A statement from President Obama mourned the Hotshots as heroes, killed in the line of duty.
"They were heroes -- highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet," he said. "The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need."
"But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy."
A Facebook page set up in the memory of the Granite Mountain Hotshots has gained more than 150,000 likes, and was steadily growing Monday.
The toll is believed to be the worst since the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles, in 1933, when 29 people died, and the most deaths of firefighters since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, which claimed the lives of 340 firefighters.
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