PHOENIX (AP) — Rescue personnel who arrived on the scene where 19 firefighters died last month battling a ferocious Arizona blaze found sheer devastation described as a "moonscape" after an inferno so intense that only the metal part of one chain saw was found, according to records obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.
After the crew's last radio communication indicated that they were deploying their shelters, air support was called in to search for them and provide medical assistance if necessary.
The records provided by the Arizona Department of Public Safety offer a glimpse into the difficult attempts to reach the men and the gruesome scene on the ground.
Pilots reported thick smoke, intense heat and blowing ash and dust making it difficult to land anywhere near their last known location.
Their yellow packs could be seen from the air, some appearing to have been burned.
An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter was eventually able to touch down about 500 yards from the site. One member of the rescue team hiked toward the men.
"As I got closer to the site I could hear voices coming from the area of the shelters. I yelled up to the shelters repeatedly but received no response," the official wrote in the records.
It turned out the voices were coming from the dead firefighters' radios.
"The ground around the deployment site was black and crusted with no visible vegetation and only occasional black branches sticking out of the ground," the report stated. "I can best describe the area as a moonscape."
The man reported finding a chain saw "that had only metal left on it" not far from the bodies, along with an ax head, its handle gone, likely burned in the flames.
A check of the men found "obvious rigor and no breathing or signs of life." Incident command was made aware that all 19 men had died as the first rescue personnel on the scene reported "firefighters were located in various positions around and under the shelters, obviously deceased and burned beyond recognition."
The wildfire began with a lightning strike on Friday, June 28, and worsened by the hour through the weekend — at one point causing flames up to 20 feet high. The elite Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was called in June 30 to help protect the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
The 20-member team hiked into the boulder-strewn mountains before afternoon thunderstorms and erratic winds of more than 50 mph caused the blaze to shift directions, turning on the crew as they attempted to reach a nearby ranch. Only one member of the team who was serving as a lookout survived.
Officials believe they were forced to retreat into a bowl surrounded by mountains on three sides, the slopes way too steep to even attempt to outrun the flames. The crew radioed that they were deploying their emergency shelters, but the fire proved too intense.
The blaze ended up destroying more than 100 homes before it was fully contained on July 10.
A national team of investigators has finished gathering evidence from the scene and interviewing other firefighters. It's expected their report on the fatalities will be completed sometime in late August or early September.