By David Schwartz
PHOENIX, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Faced by roaring flames driven at his team by gale-force winds and seeing no way out, the crew chief of an elite Arizona firefighting squad radioed a grim message to his command center.
They had only moments left to take cover in foil-lined fire-protection bags carried by each man and to hope for the best.
"Yeah, I'm here with Granite Mountain Hotshots," Eric Marsh called out, his voice cracking over the radio transmission. "Our escape route has been cut off.
"We are preparing a deployment site, and we are burned out around ourselves in the brush, and I'll give you a call when we are under the ... shelters."
Those words, documented in transcripts newly released by state forestry officials, marked what is believed to be the final transmission from the 19 "hotshot" crew members killed in the June 30 disaster, the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire in 80 years.
The wind-whipped, lighting-caused fire destroyed scores of homes and blackened 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral and grasslands before it was extinguished in and around the tiny town of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix. One crew member survived.
Two investigative reports have since been issued, one earlier this month in which investigators accused forestry management officials of placing the preservation of structures and land above firefighter safety.
The Arizona Industrial Commission fined the Arizona State Forestry Division $559,000 for workplace safety violations stemming from the fire. Families of those killed in the blaze are seeking millions of dollars in compensation.
The Yarnell Hill fire was relatively small by Arizona standards, but the emotional impact of the loss of the 19 firefighters has reverberated through the state and beyond.
The last words from the men on the front lines that late afternoon were contained in snatches of two-way radio chatter picked up by an audio-video recorder mounted on the helmet of a firefighter elsewhere in the fire zone, according to Carrie Dennett, a forestry spokeswoman.
Recorded in the more than seven-minute sequence were the voices of officials from operations, air command and the hotshot crew.
"We are in front of the flaming front," a member of the team reported during the frantic early stages of the recording. There were calls from the imperiled crew requesting emergency water drops from planes or helicopters. And yelling.
Realizing the men were in jeopardy, operations officials asked air support teams to contact the embattled crew. But it would prove too late to help.
Moments later, Marsh called in with news that he and his crew would be deploying their personal fire shelters, a last-ditch move to survive when there was no means of escape. "Affirm!" he said, before radio transmissions from the scene fell silent. (Editing by Steve Gorman and Mohammad Zargham)