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Controversy Surrounding Granite Mountain Hotshots Autopsy Photos

Controversy Surrounding Granite Mountain Hotshots Autopsy Photos

Learn about the controversial Granite Mountain Hotshots autopsy photos. Explore the findings and questions raised by the reports of the tragedy.

In 2013, two state investigations were conducted into the tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who lost their lives while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30th of that year. 

However, these investigations did not include the full autopsy and toxicology reports of the deceased firefighters.

The media attempted to obtain these reports, which are typically considered public records, but Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk rejected their requests. In a letter to the media dated August 26th, 2013, Polk stated that the reports would not be released without a court order.

The Arizona Republic took legal action on September 18th, 2013, by suing both the Yavapai County Medical Examiner and the Yavapai County Sheriff in an effort to obtain the autopsy records, as well as additional information, such as photographs of the location where the men died. 

However, the newspaper dropped its claim against the medical examiner on September 30th, 2013, after the state released the Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR) two days earlier.

Unfortunately, the SAIR did not include the full autopsy or toxicology reports. Despite this setback, the Republic argued that the investigative report contained the same essential information that was being sought in the lawsuit.

As a result of Polk’s refusal to release the autopsy reports and the Republic’s decision to drop its lawsuit, the autopsy reports remained unavailable to the public. 

It is only recently that they have been made public, providing a more complete picture of the events that led to the tragic deaths of the 19 firefighters.

On October 26, InvestigativeMEDIA filed a public records request with the Yavapai County Medical Examiner, seeking the autopsy and toxicology reports related to the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who tragically lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire. 

Notably, the request explicitly stated that no photographs were being sought. The reports were released by the county just a few days later.

One significant finding in the toxicology reports is the presence of alcohol in the blood of 13 of the 19 Hotshots, with levels ranging from .01 to .09 percent. In Arizona, the legal limit for intoxication while driving is .08%. One Hotshot had drugs of abuse in their blood, but no alcohol.

This discovery has raised questions about whether the Hotshots were drinking heavily before or during their time on the fire line. 

However, the presence of alcohol in the men’s blood may also be due to the extreme heat and subsequent decomposition of their bodies, which were left on the ground overnight after the burn over occurred around 4:45 p.m.

Toxicology Consultants and Assessment Specialists, LLC released a report in November 2013 stating that severely burned postmortem bodies often produce endogenous alcohol, a phenomenon that is well-documented within the toxicological literature. The report cites studies by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other severe burn cases.

Furthermore, three Hotshots had alcohol in both their blood and vitreous humor (fluid inside the eye), which could suggest that the alcohol was ingested rather than a result of decomposition. However, this evidence is still far from conclusive.

Overall, the presence of alcohol in the Hotshots’ blood has added another layer of complexity to this tragic event and raises important questions about their conduct and safety protocols while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The toxicology report for the Granite Mountain Hotshots revealed that 13 out of the 19 firefighters had alcohol in their blood, ranging from .01 to .09 percent. The legal limit for alcohol consumption in Arizona is .08 percent. 

The presence of alcohol in the blood of the 13 men could indicate heavy drinking the night before or while on the fire line. However, the phenomenon of endogenous alcohol production during severe postmortem burns cannot be ignored.

The toxicology report for Garret Zuppiger and Robert Caldwell showed a blood alcohol content of .04% and .01%, respectively, and a vitreous alcohol sample of .01% for both. Maricopa County Medical Examiner Kathleen Enstice stated that the alcohol presence in their blood and vitreous samples was most likely due to decomposition. Joe Thurston had a blood alcohol content of .05% and a vitreous sample of .01%, but no assessment was provided by Medical Examiner Mark Shelly.

The absence of alcohol in the blood of the remaining five hotshots raises questions about the cause of alcohol presence in the blood of the 13 others. 

Published studies indicate that the presence of alcohol in the blood without a corresponding presence in the vitreous sample is an indication that the alcohol was created after death.

The fact that 14 of the 19 hotshots had alcohol and/or drugs in their system was not disclosed or investigated in the two state investigations into the Yarnell Hill Fire disaster, which claimed the most lives of an Interagency Hotshot Crew in U.S. wildland firefighting history.

The Serious Accident Investigation Team and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health did not have any record of communication with the Yavapai County Medical Examiner or the Maricopa County Medical Examiner, who conducted the autopsies on July 2 for Yavapai. 

It is unclear if or when the autopsy reports were provided to investigators.

The investigations also did not examine what the hotshots were doing the night before the fire, which was supposed to be their first day off after working for 28 of the previous 30 days, including 26 days on fires and just finishing a 12-hour shift. 

This raises questions about the possible impact of fatigue and other factors on the tragedy.

According to reports, it is alleged that three hotshots, including Garrett Zuppiger, Christopher MacKenzie, and Brendan McDonough, were drinking at a local bar called the Whiskey Row Pub in Prescott on the evening of June 29. 

The hotshots reportedly often came in groups to drink on their rare days off, and bartender Jeff Bunch gave them discounts as his son was a former crew member.

MacKenzie was found to have a blood alcohol content of .01%, but there was no comment made by Medical Examiner Christopher K. Poulos about the presence of alcohol in MacKenzie’s blood sample. 

The autopsy and toxicology reports also raise questions about McDonough’s condition on June 30, as he was not tested for alcohol or drugs despite the fact that his entire crew had perished in a tragic event that remains unexplained to this day. 

McDonough was working as a lookout in a separate location and was not with the crew when they became trapped by the flames.

There are statements from an eyewitness who saw the crew on the morning of June 30 while ascending the Weaver Mountains that raise questions about the physical condition of the men. 

Sonny Gilligan, a former miner, cowboy, and experienced hiker, observed the crew hiking up a two-track trail at about 9:18 a.m. and said that they looked “totally spent” and in need of rest.

In addition, the men had listed their energy level on a chalkboard inside the crew’s station on the morning of June 30. 

Many members had reported low physical percentages, with two in the 30% range, one at 55%, three in the 60% range, including superintendent Eric Marsh, who reported 68%, and three in the 70% range. Only two hotshots reported being at 100%.

There are several unanswered questions, including whether the men were exhausted from working nonstop most of June, whether some were hungover from a long night on the town, or whether they were worn out from celebrating their success in fighting the Doce Fire a week earlier. These questions remain unknown.