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Ultimate respect: Volunteers carefully catalog Hotshot Memorial items

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
Volunteers carefully sort, preserve and record the thousands of items recently removed from the memorial fence at Prescott Fire Department Station 7.

PRESCOTT - No detail is too small, it seems, when it comes to preserving the community's outpouring for the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots.

From the signatures scrawled on the 1,000 T-shirts, to the 800 U.S. flags of all sizes, to the now-crumpled paper messages - volunteers have been at work to save it all.

"We've taken the position that absolutely everything is significant," Jan Monroe, one of the preservation organizers, said Wednesday as she surveyed the roomful of bagged items. "It was all put there with heartfelt emotion."

The preservation effort started more than two weeks ago, when a group of volunteers helped the Prescott Fire Department dismantle the memorial fence that sprang up soon after 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire.

For weeks afterward, local residents and visitors from around the country used the chain-link fence in front of the Sixth Street fire station as a forum for expressing their grief. By early September, the tightly woven remembrances completely shrouded the fire station.

Ultimately, the fire department decided that the memorial should come down - both in an effort to preserve the items, and to move on from the tragedy.

That is where a group of volunteers came in. After packing the thousands of items into boxes on that rainy day on Sept. 10, the team has been working to dry out, photograph, and catalog all of the contents from the fence.

From the start, say Monroe and fellow organizer Dottie Morris, the emphasis has been on keeping the items virtually as they were on the fence.

That means that although the items were dried, they were not laundered. "We wanted to preserve them as they came in, and we were afraid that detergent would damage that," Morris said.

For instance, many of the T-shirts from fire stations around the world were signed by firefighters. One from Henderson, Nev. included about 100 signatures, Morris said.

Not only have volunteers been working to preserve the signatures, but they also are recording all of the details on hand-written processing forms.

In one room of the cataloging area Wednesday, volunteers Deborah Balzano and Randi Wise were meticulously recording the T-shirt features: the color and size, the logos, and the signatures.

Many of the shirts also showed signs of their weeks in the hot sun, bearing patterns burned into the blue fabric.

To ensure that the T-shirts will not deteriorate in storage, the group is storing them in unbleached muslin-fabric bags, which are being produced by volunteers.

Now nearly three months after the tragedy, Morris and Monroe emphasize that donations and volunteers are still going strong. The effort has received contributions of everything from bolts of muslin to cleaning services for the building where the cataloging is taking place.

As the group worked Wednesday morning, for instance, local residents Cheryl and Al Brown dropped off 100 muslin bags for the T-shirts.

"These were sewn yesterday by my stitching group," Cheryl Brown said, adding that she and her husband had earlier delivered 29 more bags.

The preservation effort also attracted the attention of Katie Cornelius, an archivist who has volunteered for Sharlot Hall Museum.

When Cornelius saw the news coverage of the dismantling of the wall, she immediately contacted Monroe to offer her help.

Her main motivation: Ensuring that the young children of the fallen Hotshots will have a place someday to learn more about their fathers.

"I was widowed at 24 with a three-month-old," Cornelius explained, noting that her daughter is now a teenager and has sought such information about her father.

"My number-one reason for wanting to do this is for the kids," Cornelius said. "There will be a time when they want to know; I want to preserve it so that they can."

With a degree in history and experience working as a registrar for a Michigan historical society, Cornelius felt she could offer some guidance. "This is stuff I know how to do," she said, looking around at the neatly cataloged and bagged items.

The handling of the hundreds of U.S. flags that were left at the wall is another example of community cooperation.

Because the flags were damp when high school JROTC students folded them on Sept. 10, the group needed a large area for drying them. The local Fraternal Order of Eagles on Cortez Street stepped in and offered their banquet room.

As many as 800 flags - large and small - now are spread out on the tables at the group's headquarters.

Despite the many offerings of assistance, the organizers say they still have areas where more help is needed.

While calligraphy enthusiast Curt Weaver is helping to write thank-you notes to local groups and businesses that have helped, Cornelius pointed out that the fire department hopes to send out thank-yous to everyone who left commemorative items - a number that could total in the thousands.

"We would like to involve the whole community and the schools," Cornelius said of the note-writing process.

Morris and Monroe said they also are in need of at least two freezers to help in the preservation process. After the items are photographed and cataloged, they must spend two days in a freezer to rid them of the potentially harmful insect larvae, the organizers say.

In addition, the preservation effort also still needs shelving for storage of the smaller items.

Anyone interested in donating, helping with the remaining cataloging, or writing thank-you notes may contact Monroe by email at sadiemutt@hotmail.com, with the subject line TFPP (for Tribute Fence Preservation Project).

Prescott city officials have yet to decide how to permanently handle the commemorative items.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter: @Cindy_Barks.


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