July Fourth in Prescott: celebrating during a somber time
Every Independence Day, thousands of people crowd into Prescott's Pioneer Park for a huge, city-sponsored blowout. They bring their folding chairs, shade tents and coolers on wheels. But this time they've brought something else, too. Grief. Nineteen of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots died just a few days ago.
As Michelle Stacy-Schroeder explained, this year "there is a very humble undertone to the event."
Stacy-Schroeder works with the Parks and Recreation Department. She said many people told the city to cancel the festival and the fireworks show, yet the city chose to stick with it. This is one of the biggest events of the year.
But more importantly, Stacy-Schroeder said city leaders knew they had to hold the festival to honor their fallen firefighters — and their friends and families.
"Like we're all one," she said. "So, you see that the entire city is coming together, in light of this tragedy to show support and have a united front for our fallen."
Part of that support, she explained, is showing that life goes on. And deeper inside the celebration, it definitely was. A band played upbeat bluegrass from a stage. Children screamed from a row of kiddie rides. And no matter where you were, it smelled like funnel cakes.
It was easy to get lulled into the sense that everything was normal. But it's wasn't.
Teresa Ryan was sitting near a giant inflatable water slide and trying to sell T-shirts to benefit the firefighters' families. She said she didn't care if she has to stay all day in the sun and yell till she was hoarse. She called the firefighters heroes.
"They're what America is all about," Ryan said. "They are what America is made up of. Those people, you know what? Yarnell residents ran out of the fire. Those people ran into the fire."
Prescott firefighters had been hearing words like that all day. In fact, part of fireman Wade Ward's job was simply to connect with the public. As he sat under a tent next to a shiny Prescott fire truck, a group of young men walked up, their hands outstretched. They all gave Ward a sincere thank you.
Ward said that had been happening constantly.
"Just about everybody that walks by the medical tent right here comes up and shakes our hand," he said. "Says that they're praying for us, supporting us, and whatever they need, they're here for us as a community."
And Ward wants people to know that his department is still here for them. That's where he wants to focus, on his job. It's easier than thinking about everything else. He knew each one of those 19 firefighters. Many were close friends.
"They were the hardest working kids I’ve ever met, and they were were also the hardest playing kids I’ve ever met," he said, smiling and breaking into a chuckle. "You know, they were just fun-loving, every single one of them. So, you know, they’re going to be missed for sure."
It used to be that the Granite Mountain Hotshots spent their Fourth of July monitoring the evening’s fireworks display for stray embers. But this year was different. This year the finale honored the men who died, with 19 purple flares exploding in the night sky.