Discover the contentious autopsy photos of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Investigate the discoveries and queries prompted by the accounts of the calamity.
Back in 2013, two state inquiries were carried out into the sorrowful demises of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who perished while combating the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30th of that year.
Nonetheless, these investigations did not encompass the complete autopsy and toxicology reports of the deceased firefighters.
The media endeavored to procure these records, which are customarily regarded as public documents, but Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk rebuffed their requests. In a communique to the media dated August 26th, 2013, Polk conveyed that the reports would not be unveiled without a judicial directive.
The Arizona Republic pursued legal recourse on September 18th, 2013, by suing both the Yavapai County Medical Examiner and the Yavapai County Sheriff in an attempt to acquire the autopsy records, and supplementary data, such as photographs of the site where the men perished.
However, the newspaper retracted its claim against the medical examiner on September 30th, 2013, subsequent to the release of the Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR) two days earlier.
Alas, the SAIR did not encompass the complete autopsy or toxicology reports. In spite of this setback, the Republic asserted that the investigative report contained the same crucial information that was being pursued in the lawsuit.
Owing to Polk’s refusal to release the autopsy reports and the Republic’s choice to withdraw its legal action, the autopsy reports remained inaccessible to the public.
It has only recently been made public, presenting a more comprehensive portrayal of the events that led to the tragic demises of the 19 firefighters.
On October 26, InvestigativeMEDIA submitted a public records request with the Yavapai County Medical Examiner, seeking the autopsy and toxicology reports pertaining to the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who tragically lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Pertinently, the request explicitly stated that no photographs were being sought. The reports were released by the county just a few days later.
A notable finding in the toxicology reports is the existence of alcohol in the blood of 13 of the 19 Hotshots, with levels ranging from .01 to .09 percent. In Arizona, the permissible limit for intoxication while driving is .08%. One Hotshot had narcotics in their blood, but no alcohol.
This revelation has spurred inquiries about whether the Hotshots were imbibing heavily before or during their time on the fire line.
However, the presence of alcohol in the men’s blood may also be attributable to the extreme heat and ensuing decomposition of their bodies, which were left on the ground overnight after the burn over occurred around 4:45 p.m.
Toxicology Consultants and Assessment Specialists, LLC released a report in November 2013 stating that drastically burned postmortem bodies frequently yield endogenous alcohol, a phenomenon that is comprehensively documented within the toxicological literature. The report cites studies by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other severe burn cases.
Moreover, three Hotshots had alcohol in both their blood and vitreous humor (fluid inside the eye), which could imply that the alcohol was ingested rather than a result of decomposition. However, this evidence is still far from conclusive.
Overall, the presence of alcohol in the Hotshots’ blood has introduced another facet of intricacy to this tragic event and raises significant questions about their demeanor and safety protocols while combating the Yarnell Hill Fire.
The toxicology report for the Granite Mountain Hotshots disclosed that 13 out of the 19 firefighters had alcohol in their blood, ranging from .01 to .09 percent. The permissible limit for alcohol consumption in Arizona is .08 percent.
The presence of alcohol in the blood of the 13 men could indicate substantial drinking the night before or while on the fire line. However, the phenomenon of endogenous alcohol production during severe postmortem burns cannot be disregarded.
The toxicology report for Garret Zuppiger and Robert Caldwell demonstrated a blood alcohol content of .04% and .01%, respectively, and a vitreous alcohol sample of .01% for both. Maricopa County Medical Examiner Kathleen Enstice stated that the alcohol presence in their blood and vitreous samples was most likely due to decomposition. Joe Thurston had a blood alcohol content of .05% and a vitreous sample of .01%, but no assessment was provided by Medical Examiner Mark Shelly.
The absence of alcohol in the blood of the remaining five hotshots raises queries about the cause of alcohol presence in the blood of the 13 others.
Published studies indicate that the presence of alcohol in the blood without a corresponding presence in the vitreous sample is an indication that the alcohol was created after death.
The fact that 14 of the 19 hotshots had alcohol and/or drugs in their system was not disclosed or investigated in the two state investigations into the Yarnell Hill Fire disaster, which claimed the most lives of an Interagency Hotshot Crew in U.S. wildland firefighting history.
The Serious Accident Investigation Team and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health did not have any record of communication with the Yavapai County Medical Examiner or the Maricopa County Medical Examiner, who conducted the autopsies on July 2 for Yavapai.
It is uncertain if or when the autopsy reports were provided to investigators.
The investigations also did not scrutinize what the hotshots were doing the night before the fire, which was meant to be their first day off after working for 28 of the previous 30 days, including 26 days on fires and just finishing a 12-hour shift.
This raises questions about the potential impact of exhaustion and other factors on the tragedy.
According to reports, it is purported that three hotshots, including Garrett Zuppiger, Christopher MacKenzie, and Brendan McDonough, were imbibing at a local bar called the Whiskey Row Pub in Prescott on the evening of June 29.
The hotshots reportedly often congregated in gatherings to drink on their infrequent days off, and bartender Jeff Bunch granted them reductions as his son was a former crew member.
MacKenzie was discovered to have a blood alcohol content of .01%, but there was no elucidation made by Medical Examiner Christopher K. Poulos about the presence of alcohol in MacKenzie’s blood sample.
The autopsy and toxicology reports also prompt queries about McDonough’s state on June 30, as he was not screened for alcohol or drugs despite the fact that his entire crew had perished in a tragic event that remains inexplicable to this day.
McDonough was working as a lookout in a separate location and was not with the crew when they got ensnared by the flames.
There are testimonies from an onlooker who saw the crew on the morning of June 30 while ascending the Weaver Mountains that raise questions about the physical condition of the men.
Sonny Gilligan, a former miner, cowboy, and seasoned hiker, observed the crew trekking up a two-track trail at about 9:18 a.m. and asserted that they looked “completely exhausted” and in need of respite.
Furthermore, the men had listed their energy level on a blackboard inside the crew’s station on the morning of June 30.
Several members reported low physical percentages, with two in the 30% range, one at 55%, three in the 60% range, including superintendent Eric Marsh, who reported 68%, and three in the 70% range. Only two hotshots reported being at 100%.
There are numerous unresolved questions, including whether the men were fatigued from toiling ceaselessly for most of June, whether some were suffering from the effects of excessive drinking on a prolonged night out, or whether they were fatigued from celebrating their triumph in combating the Doce Fire a week earlier. These matters remain undisclosed.