Line of Duty Death and Human Factors- From a Hotshot Widow

Roxanne and a family friend at the funeral for her husband Granite Mountain Hotshot William Warneke. Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

Roxanne and a family friend at the funeral for her husband Granite Mountain Hotshot William Warneke. Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

Author- Roxanne Preston, WFGI Chairman; co-founder

This is a narrative from Granite Mountain Hotshot William Warneke’s widow, Roxanne Preston. Roxanne’s goal is to prevent unnecessary loss of life. Even if that means addressing topics that ordinarily would make someone uncomfortable.

The purpose of this narrative is to allow wildland firefighters and their families a glimpse of the turmoil and grief caused by a Line of Duty Death.

Most importantly, the purpose of this narrative is to address the Human Factors- which plays a significant role in line of duty fatalities and injuries.

It is imperative to learn from mistakes so that others do not make the same mistakes.

This is from Roxanne’s perspective as a hotshot’s wife, and as a hotshot’s widow. It is not an account of the Yarnell Hill Fire, nor does it place blame on anyone or any agency for the death of her husband.

I stood outside the front porch as I watched my husband’s red F-150 drive away I had an overwhelming urge to run after his truck. I felt an urgency to run after him and to ask him to leave his wedding band. But I felt that it would be a silly request so I stood still and fought back my tears.

A heavy feeling surrounded me and my heart constricted and sank to my stomach. Angered at myself for thinking so negatively I scolded myself, “stop acting like this. It is not the last time you’ll see him.” I walked inside the house, and I watched him drive away from the front window as the tears fell from my eyes.

Afterall, as a ‘fire wife’ I had to trust in his training and in his instincts that he would make it back home unscathed. I trusted in his leadership and in the Incident Commanders who would oversee him.

I trusted with every fiber of my being that he was going to come home. That I would hear another speech that if he were to be caught in a burnover that the fire shelter would not keep him alive. It would just preserve his remains so that I have something to bury. I often gave him a “really, this again?” look when he’d show me where I could find his life insurance policy, and his dental x-rays. The dental x-rays would be needed to identify his remains.

I worried more about the unpredictable-a snag, a vehicle accident. Why had I never considered a wind shift? I had helped him with his studies to obtain his Fire Science degree. I knew the 10 Standard Firefighter Orders, the 18 Watchout Situations, and the LCES. I had quizzed him on them by using flashcards. I knew that wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession. I thought that it wouldn’t happen to him, not to us.

But I trusted, as any wife does, that her husband will walk in through the front door covered in ash and soot. That I would smell the smoke that permeated his PPEs and his truck again. I trusted in every level- from my husband, to his leadership, to his Incident Commanders. They would not walk him into a fire without having addressed safety- he would not be caught in a burnover.

And yet there I stood in the Arizona heat on a sidewalk in downtown Prescott as I watched law enforcement on their motorcycles leading a procession for nineteen men. The lights flashed red and blue above the heat haze. The sound of motorcycles was deaf to my ears. Chills ran down my body; I was cold in spite of the Arizona summer heat. My hands were cold and numb, and my palms sweat. I watched the procession as fire engines followed the motorcycles. My breaths were ragged as I fought to control my emotions. I caught a glimpse of a white hearse in the sea of red and blue lights, American flags, and saluting first responders and civilians. It disappeared as it went down a hill, and then I saw the second white hearse, then a third, a fourth, a fifth. I closed my eyes to shut out the new reality of my life.

Panic swept through me. I placed a hand on my stomach. My unborn daughter moved as if she too could see the horror of the procession before us. Her daddy was dead. We were standing, waiting for the hearse that carried his body to drive in front of us.

I opened my eyes after having talked myself up- I could do it. I quickly noticed that the hearses came down in alphabetical order of the deceased firefighter that it carried. I prepared myself as best as I could for my husband’s name. I kept repeating to myself, “I can do this.” I took a deep and slow breath. Before I could exhale that breath was stolen from me as I read his name- William Warneke. My legs trembled and threatened to give way - I would not fall. I would not allow it.

I closed my eyes. My heart sank into an oblivion of despair. I wanted to shut out this reality. If I didn’t see it then it didn’t exist. But I could hear running engines. I could hear the tires on the asphalt as the hearses drove by. I heard sobbing.

It was as real as the hot tears that streamed down my cheeks. I could not shut out that my husband was dead.

Beside me my late husband’s older brother fell to his knees. Billy was the middle of five children but he was closest to his older brother. My mother in law comforted her son. His two sisters and brother fell beside their brother and mother. In the fire station behind me my father in law silently sobbed and was being supported back onto his feet by two City of Prescott Firefighters before they carried him into their bay.

As the months followed, reports were made and lawsuits filed. For me, my decision came when the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) found numerous safety violations. ADOSH found that the ones that I was supposed to trust with my husband’s life willfully - how could they prove that it was willful? - neglected their obligations to the firefighters they oversaw.

What value do we hold on human life? The answer is not a number. The answer is not tangible. It’s the sound of laughter. It’s a lover’s embrace. It’s the bed time stories read. If you ask this widow it’s the silence of a room. It’s waking to an empty bed. It’s of the bed time stories that were not read. It’s the weeping of a child who does not understand death. It’s a four-year old’s questions of why Daddy never visits her. It’s the wedding band that was incinerated.

Tragically, the life that my late husband and I built together ended with his sudden death. The future that we planned collapsed around me as grief grasped and clawed into my heart. A tragedy of this magnitude could turn anyone bitter. But rather than giving in to hostility and to sorrow, I have discovered that the greatest misery can open your heart to receive the greatest joy- a life after loss and a zest for life. I want to utilize my experiences and use them to assist wildland firefighters and their families.

My story- my experience with a Line of Duty Death is my motivation for the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute. I will never know what it’s like to the face the fire on the line nor what it’s like to ‘fight the dragon’. But I have experienced soul shattering sorrow. I do not want you or your loved one to experience the agony and heartbreak that those of us who have been widowed- prematurely in our opinion- have experienced.

The events that led to the deaths of the nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots have yet to be discerned. Reports and books have been published, and a movie made. The incident was highly publicized. I, as a LODD widow ask - what has been done to prevent this from happening again? How have the Lessons Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire been applied? How can I assure a spouse, a child, and a parent that their loved one will come home, if we cannot stop to address the Human Factors without becoming emotionally heated, and when we refuse to acknowledge that - since we are human - we make mistakes? Personally, I want to see this issue be attacked head on rather than risk sweeping it under the rug. Do not, through negligence and ignorance allow for someone else to make the same mistakes that got another killed.

I want you to go home - I want your firefighter to come home alive - and not in a body bag.

My commitment is steadfast and unwavering because you deserve it, and because I want to prevent someone else from knowing a widow’s lifelong pain.