PRESCOTT, Ariz. (USA TODAY)- A photograph of 19 flags, apparently draped over body bags on a patch of charred earth, was published Thursday on a social-media page devoted to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the firefighters who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on Sunday.
The image appears to show the scene of where the 19 firefighters died, after an honor guard draped the body bags with flags while preparing to remove them from the hill the day after the fire.
The image turned up on a Facebook page at midafternoon Thursday with no comment, no credit and no explanation about its source. Within a few hours, almost 1,000 people had shared it on their own Facebook pages.
The picture immediately triggered a debate on the page over the sensitivity of posting the photo. It drew a claim from at least one family member that the image was intended to stay private, though it was unclear who would have made that commitment. It also elicited outrage from a fire department official.
The bodies of the 19 members of the hotshot crew were removed Monday and taken to Phoenix to undergo autopsies.
The photo was posted on a page devoted to the team, although under the "about" section, it is described as "a community, news, and donation page (that) is not directly related to the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally."
The page was created Monday and includes a long series of links and photos of the firefighters, mourning family members, along with information about donation efforts. The page also includes a link to the Prescott Fire Department's website and includes the name and office telephone number of the department's wildland division chief, Darrell Willis.
Contacted by The Republic late Thursday, Willis said he had no connection to the page and said he did not post the photo or authorize its posting.
"This is totally unauthorized. It's totally against anything we committed to," Willis said
He confirmed the authenticity of the photo but said he was upset that someone would attach his name to a page with the image.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said he was unaware of the post, but said, "If it was any of our people who (posted) this, I am sure that they intended it to be in good taste."
After the firefighters were killed Sunday night, investigators and other fire workers oversaw the area and gathered evidence. On Monday, a team of fellow Prescott firefighters went to the scene to recover the bodies. In interviews with The Republic, members of that team described a solemn ceremony they performed to honor their colleagues:
When the recovery crew arrived, the fallen crew members had already been placed in body bags. The recovery crew draped each one with an American flag. An honor guard stood watch as the team prepared for the trip to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
The Republic chose to republish the photo because it depicts the respect given to these men who gave their lives to protect others.
Robert Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University in Indiana, said the questions about how the photo came into the public sphere could detract from a powerful image from the tragedy.
The debate "puts a lot of emphasis on how and why this photo became public and who made it public rather than the photo itself," he said. "It takes away from the real meaning of the image itself, the pain and loss and the community agony that comes with the deaths of these 19 firefighters. It becomes a story about the who and why."
The photo started a lively discussion on the Facebook page, with arguments for and against posting the image publicly. Many commenters simply offered condolences or saluted the firefighters. Others criticized the page owner for posting the photo.
"This picture is very overwhelming," one person wrote. "This is a picture that should be kept private. This does not show respect for these heroes or their families. I would hope this picture would be removed."
But others said they appreciated the photo as a show of respect.
"As a firefighter of more than 25 years, I have witnessed tragedies such as this," one wrote. "I feel that this picture ... is a meaningful reminder of the sacrifice that these brave, unselfish souls gave of themselves, and paid the ultimate price."
Several people said that firefighters' families knew about the photo earlier and were told that it would remain private. A woman who identified herself in the comments as a relative of one of the dead firefighters repeated that claim.
Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband, Andrew, was among the fallen firefighters, said Thursday that she appreciated all that was done to honor the bodies. She said she knew they were going to be photographed as a group, but the photos were to be "exclusive to the family."
She hadn't seen the photo online late Thursday, but when she heard about it, she said: "It makes me sad. But it doesn't make or break things in the end."