Crucial evidence in the investigation of the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy was not provided to official investigators.
- Eric Marsh’s cell phone and Christopher MacKenzie’s camera, found with their bodies, never made it to the evidence list.
- The items ended up with family members instead of contributing to the investigation.
- Investigation reports omitted these crucial pieces of evidence, creating more questions than answers.
On June 30, 2013, 19 firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. The tragic incident left a wave of sorrow and numerous questions about the circumstances leading to their deaths. Now, almost a decade later, some crucial pieces of evidence that could have potentially answered these questions remain shrouded in mystery.
The Crucial Evidence Overlooked
Eric Marsh, the superintendent of Granite Mountain, and Christopher MacKenzie, a member of the hotshot team, were among the firefighters who lost their lives in the blaze. Both men’s bodies were found with potentially critical pieces of evidence – Marsh’s cell phone and MacKenzie’s camera – which never ended up in the hands of the investigators.
The significance of these items cannot be overstated. Marsh’s cell phone, for instance, might have shed light on the communications that took place in the moments leading up to the team moving from a safe zone into a perilous canyon. MacKenzie’s camera, which was still operational, contained video clips that suggested a disagreement over tactics just before the crew left the safety of a burned-over area.
The Role of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office
The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office was responsible for conducting autopsies on all 19 hotshots. This process involved various officials, including representatives from the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) and the Arizona Forestry Division. The Examiner’s Office handled both Marsh’s phone and MacKenzie’s camera, but these items did not make it to the evidence list, and subsequently ended up with the men’s families.
The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office’s Involvement
The YCSO was entrusted with the task of collecting evidence from the Medical Examiner’s Office and handing it over to the Serious Accident Investigation Team (SAIT). This team, contracted by the Arizona Forestry Division, was supposed to lead the official inquiry into the disaster. However, neither Marsh’s phone nor MacKenzie’s camera are mentioned in the YCSO’s records of evidence received from the Medical Examiner’s Office. This omission raises questions about the thoroughness and integrity of the official investigation.
The Autopsy Reports
The absence of Marsh’s phone and MacKenzie’s camera in the official evidence is made more apparent by the autopsy reports. Autopsy records state that Marsh’s phone and MacKenzie’s functional camera were present with their bodies when they arrived at the Medical Examiner’s Office. However, these items were never listed as evidence.
The Release of the Autopsy Reports
The families of the fallen firefighters had to wait a long time for the release of the autopsy reports. The public’s right to access these documents was initially blocked by arguments about the privacy of the firefighters’ families. The reports were only released after all the lawsuits filed by the hotshots’ families against the state Forestry Division and Yavapai County had been settled.
Concerns Raised by Former Medical Examiners
Philip Keen, the former Medical Examiner of Maricopa County, voiced his concerns about the lack of standard protocol in the handling of these potential pieces of evidence. Keen, who served the county for over 22 years before retiring, stated that personal effects found with bodies should either be handed over to the investigating authority or returned to the families, but in both cases, the items should be properly logged and tracked. He further added that any item with potential evidentiary value should be thoroughly examined before being returned to the families.
State Forestry Division’s Response
The State Forestry Division defended the investigation process, stating that the Serious Accident Investigation Team had access to all necessary information to conduct a comprehensive investigation. They argued that the purpose of the investigation was not to place blame but to learn and improve safety measures. However, this statement did little to quell the questions and concerns raised by the families of the fallen hotshots and the public at large.
The Lingering Questions
The mystery surrounding the overlooked evidence adds a layer of complexity to an already tragic incident. The unanswered questions continue to fuel speculation and concern:
- What were the last communications on Marsh’s cell phone?
- What additional footage or images might have been on MacKenzie’s camera?
- Would this information have changed the official narrative of the Yarnell Hill Fire incident?
While we may never know all the details surrounding the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy, the handling of the evidence — Marsh’s cell phone and MacKenzie’s camera — highlights potential gaps in the official investigation. The families of the fallen hotshots, the firefighting community, and the public deserve a comprehensive, transparent investigation to bring closure to this tragic event. As we remember the 19 brave men who lost their lives, we must strive to learn from this incident to ensure such a tragedy is not repeated.