PRESCOTT, Ariz.—One year ago today, an Arizona wildfire killed 19 firefighters, thrusting our small community into the national headlines. As a pastor I have officiated many funerals. Never before had I led a memorial for 19 individuals who gave their lives in the same tragedy.
After a few weeks, the TV news trucks left town. So did the Red Cross. But the pain did not leave Prescott. For 52 weeks now, 19 families have lived with empty chairs, empty spaces in beds, and empty vehicles (most of them lifted pickup trucks)—all filled with life before the fire.
One of the widows—a young mom who has become a good friend—is a strong person, a model in her grief.
“It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year,” she told me, adding that she plans to survive today’s anniversary the same way she has survived the last 365 days: “By taking it one minute at a time.”
All families grieve differently. Some have sold the empty trucks, moved out from the pain-stained homes. My friend has stayed put, living in the same home, sleeping in the same bed. In healthy strides, she is learning to live with the emptiness. Adjusting to a new reality.
If we have learned anything, it’s that we can pretend to know what we would do in the face of unthinkable tragedy. But really, none of us know just how we would respond—until tragedy strikes.
The fire officials and family members I’ve walked with this past year are people of faith. We sometimes speak of faith being “tested in the fire.” And that is exactly what has happened for these men and women.
Any worldview works when the sun is shining, but when the fire comes, when difficulty strikes, when death stares us in the face, that’s when we discover if what we’ve built our life on stands firm—or collapses.
TV producers and reporters have been asking me to give a “one year later” perspective on the deaths of the 19 firefighters. I’d tell them we’ve learned three things.
First, we’ve learned that the storm is not just the crisis; it’s the 365 days that follow. It is year after year in a “new reality” without—for the widows—the person who was your other half, your beating heart, the person who would stand at the center of every imagined snapshot in your future. Many of us will deal with a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy, eventually. And then, every day after.
Secondly, we’ve learned the value of building relationships—a safety net of people who know you and your children—before a crisis hits.
Lastly, we’ve learned that tragedies don’t reveal what we’re made of as much as they reveal what we’ve built our lives upon. The sufferers of tragedies I know—those who are remarkable in their strength and who have grown superhuman in their wisdom and tenderness—all have this in common: Their lives are built on something bigger and stronger than themselves.
For the widows and fire officials I know in Prescott, that foundation is a simple belief that God ushered their loved ones into a place of peace, and that they soon will be reunited with them because of their faith in Christ.
I was eating a sandwich recently with the man who could have been the 20th firefighter to die in the flames had he not taken one week of overdue vacation that very week.
He described how, as he has told God of his pain, he has come to understand peace and purpose as never before. He knows he will see his friends again. Until then, he has a newfound ability to savor small, daily moments that used to rush past him unnoticed.
The strong widow I mentioned earlier put it this way: “I now realize this life is a dot, with a line going out forever—eternity. This is so temporary. In a really short time we’re going to enter into that big picture of eternity, and be there forever.”
She recently read about D.L. Moody. “Some day you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody has died,” the old-time Chicago evangelist once said. “Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.”
The survivors of last year’s wildfire say this is a hope worth building a life on. And I am witnessing firsthand a hope that stands firm in the fiercest storms and even in the fiercest fires.