PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Eric Marsh built the Granite Mountain Hotshots from nothing — and died trying to protect the crew that friends say constituted his life's work.
A lifelong wildland firefighter, the 43-year-old Marsh founded the Granite Mountain team, the first municipal crew of elite, Hotshot firefighters in the nation. He and all but one of the 19 men who served under him were killed Sunday when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix.
As superintendent, Marsh was in charge of ensuring the crew's safety, friends and colleagues said. It's the one position on a Hotshot team that calls for caution and prudence as well as confidence and experience.
"You've got basically a crew of professional athletes working for you, and they'll do anything you say. There's a lot of responsibility that goes with that," said Marsh's friend, Patrick Moore, who is superintendent of the Pleasant Valley Hotshots, another Arizona firefighting team.
Superintendents are the link between the men battling a raging fire and the planning team back at headquarters. Deputies often make tactical decisions, while the chief aim of the superintendent is to get his men back into their trucks at the end of the day.
"It's their job to watch, and if the plan isn't working, it is their job to say we have to do something else. Safety is paramount," said Fire Management Officer Don Nunley, who supervises a superintendent in the nearby Payson Ranger District.
Before they were killed Sunday in the largest loss of firefighter life since Sept. 11, 2001, Marsh and his men deployed their emergency shelters, which are designed to protect them from intense heat in desperate situations. Last year, Marsh let a university news reporter look on as he drilled his rookies on how to use their shelters. At the time, he said, preparation was everything.
"If we're not actually doing it, we're thinking and planning about it," he said.
A native of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, Marsh was known for his cool head and "Southern gentleman" demeanor, even in the hairiest of situations. He grew up in picturesque Ashe County, a sparsely populated tourist destination with a population of 27,000 known for its hiking trails and thriving Christmas tree industry.
Other teams would rib him about his laid-back manner.
"Eric had this deep soothing voice that no matter how amped everyone around him got, he was able to stay real mellow. We'd be like, 'Out west we gotta move a little faster, talk a little faster, Eric,'" Moore said.
Marsh's parents, Jane and John Marsh, moved to Arizona five years ago to be closer to their only son and his wife, Kori. His father, a biology teacher, was a former county commissioner.
"He was a loving and caring son, and he was compassionate and concerned about the well-being of the crew members," John Marsh said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. "He was concerned for them, not just in the fire. They were like his family."
A fifth grade science teacher recalled Marsh as a brilliant student with a passion for the natural sciences. He was a linebacker on his high school football team and later studied biology at Appalachian State University.
Marsh spent most of his professional career fighting wildfires — a rarity for a job that generally draws younger guys who see firefighting as a stepping stone to something else, Prescott Fire Capt. Jeff Knotek said. He started working on forming his own Hotshots team eight years ago, when he worked as part of a municipal fuels management crew in Prescott that focused on clearing overly dense vegetation. The group made the ranks of Hotshots in 2008.
While the federal government certifies teams as highly-qualified Hotshots — groups that are often dispatched to the hottest part of a blaze to clear fuels and protect structures — Marsh's group was unique because it operated as part of a city fire department, rather than a state or federal agency.
"Eric had to assemble all those elements on his own to get it into shape, so it was a labor of love for him," Moore said. "It was his vision that got it to that level."
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are headquartered in a cobalt blue corrugated metal building surrounded with a barbed wire fence. A humble break room is decorated with a still life of pears.
It contrasts with the gleaming white firehouse across the street in Prescott, where three fire trucks peek out from behind glass windows.
On Tuesday, 13 trucks and cars remained parked in the gravel around the unorthodox headquarters. Families have been coming to retrieve the cars at night.
During the off-season, Marsh worked as an instructor, helping to train hundreds of Arizona firefighters. Sedona firefighter Mark Beneitone was one of his many students, and remembered Marsh telling vivid stories — enlivening classes that might otherwise have been a chore because of the litany of rules and procedures involved in fighting wildland fires.
"You were sitting at your desk," he said, "but you were able to picture it.
As they mourn their comrades, fire superintendents are also weighing what the unfathomable tragedy means for them — both personally and professionally. Before, the near total destruction of a crew was possible only in theory, said Moore, who spoke from the Nevada border, where he is leading a crew fighting another wildfire.
"It definitely changes how you're viewing your job right now," he said. "I always took some comfort from having him on our wing."
Associated Press reporters Mitch Weiss in Charlotte, N.C., and Felicia Fonseca in Prescott contributed to this report.