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By Tim Gaynor
PRESCOTT VALLEY, Arizona (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners, led by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, paid tribute on Tuesday to 19 Arizona firemen killed in the worst U.S. wildfire tragedy in decades, saluting the fallen with bell chimes, bagpipes and a prayer from the crew's lone survivor.
An overflow crowd that included firefighters from around the country, many in dress uniforms, packed a 6,000-seat auditorium and spilled out into the parking lot, where mourners in lawn chairs set up beneath umbrellas watched the ceremony on a large video screen.
"It is a terrible tragedy you have endured," Biden said from a podium in front of a large American flag. "We're humbled to be here with you, standing in front of the families of the men we honor today and so many of their brethren."
The 2 1/2-hour service, also attended by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, two U.S. Cabinet secretaries and most of Arizona's congressional delegation, was the largest of several memorial gatherings held for the fallen firefighters since they died on June 30.
The 19 men were overrun by flames fanned in their direction by gale-force winds as they battled a lightning-sparked blaze with hand tools outside the tiny hamlet of Yarnell, about 30 miles southwest of their central Arizona home base of Prescott.
All were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team, a 20-man squad specially trained to tackle fires in rugged, backcountry areas at close range, armed with little more than shovels, pick-axes and chainsaws.
The Prescott crew was one of only 108 such elite outfits from around the country, many of them represented at Tuesday's service, and was the only one attached to a municipal fire department.
"They looked forward to facing the mouth of the dragon, with a smile. It was an honor to be their chief," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told the mourners.
The 19 deaths rank as the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire since more than two dozen men were killed battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles. The Arizona disaster also marks the highest number of American firefighters killed in a single incident since the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
PRAYER FOR THE FALLEN
In an emotional climax to the service, the Prescott crew's lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, drew a standing ovation as he took the stage to recite "The Hotshots Prayer," concluding with the line: "For if this day ... I should answer death's call, Lord, bless my hot shot crew, my family one and all."
"Thank you, and I miss my brothers," he said afterward, his voice choking with emotion.
It was the first public appearance of the tall, slender McDonough, who has kept a low profile and declined media interviews since he emerged unscathed from the fire in which his comrades perished. McDonough had been acting as team lookout and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew at the time.
McDonough was introduced by Dan Bates, an officer of the local firefighters' union, who read from a text message one of the men had sent his mother shortly before he was killed: "Mom, the fire's getting big. There's a ranch down there. We need to go protect it. We will rest later."
The service opened with a color guard of firefighters filing into the auditorium in front of a stage lined with photos of the fallen crew members superimposed on American flags. Their well-worn gear was also on display.
"Today we come together to honor and mourn 19 brave men. They were protectors," Governor Jan Brewer said. "They were 19 heroes, gone at the turn of the wind."
Other dignitaries present included U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Arizona's two U.S. senators - John McCain and Jeff Flake - and several U.S. representatives from Arizona.
On two occasions, a silver ceremonial fire bell was chimed as the names of each of the fallen were called out - once as an honor guard presented family members with U.S. and Arizona flags and a bronzed Pulaski tool used by wildland firefighters, and again when gold medals of honor were awarded to the men posthumously.
The service concluded with four U.S. Marine Corps fighter jets streaking overhead in formation, followed by a traditional drum and bagpipes corps playing "Amazing Grace" as they marched through the aisles of the arena.
The precise circumstances of the firefighters' deaths in Arizona remain under investigation. Authorities have said the 19 firefighters, most in their 20s, apparently became trapped in seconds as a burst of high winds from an approaching thunderstorm drove flames into their position.
The so-called Yarnell Hill fire, one of dozens of wildland blazes that have raged across western states this summer, charred 8,400 acres after erupting on June 28. Scores of homes were destroyed. As of Tuesday, crews had carved containment lines around 90 percent of the fire's perimeter.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott and Andrew Hay)