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Arizona Firefighter Remembered For Loving His Job


Firefighters briefly stopped work on the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona today to honor 19 comrades who were killed this past Sunday. Crews lined a highway as vehicles left behind by the Granite Mountain Hotshots were driven away. It was just one of a number of remembrances this week in and around Prescott, Arizona. NPR's Nathan Rott met with one victim's family, and we'll end this hour with their story.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Claire Caldwell is up early, watering her garden.

CLAIRE CALDWELL: Yup, watering my garden. Still got to take care of my garden.

ROTT: To sit and talk, she walks into the house, past wedding pictures and a vase of roses, through the kitchen and past a table of donated food, to the backyard patio. It's a sunny day, and the birds are chirping. There's a wooden sign above the patio entrance that reads: I'd rather be wearing boots than a suit. Another, behind it, reads: Happily ever after.

CALDWELL: This is his home, but he doesn't want me to say that. He's like it's our home.

ROTT: He is Robert Caldwell, Bob as the guys on the crew called him. He was a squad boss for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and Claire is his wife.

CALDWELL: He was absolutely a charmer, like he could charm the socks right off of anybody. I mean, the grocery store ladies loved him. Everybody loved him.

ROTT: Especially her son. Claire had a 4-year-old son, Zion, when they met just a year ago.

CALDWELL: The way he just took me and my son into his family and made us his family, like us three.

ROTT: While we're speaking, Robert's parents come out to the patio. His mom, Linda, and then his dad, David.

DAVID CALDWELL: He had told me about how much he was really pleased with Zion that now he was happy that Zion had told him things about how much he had loved him and called him dad on Father's Day and how much that meant to him, you know? That was very obvious.

ROTT: The Caldwell family is one of 19 in Prescott that is trying to pull itself together, trying to come to grips with the fact that that thing, that thing that every one of them knew was possible when they kissed their husbands, their sons and their fathers goodbye has become the reality. It was part of the deal, the Caldwells say. Robert, like the other 18 Hotshots, loved firefighting.

CALDWELL: He told me once, you know, if you want me to quit, I will, but please don't ever ask me to. And I said, I won't, I promise.

ROTT: It was awful, she says, for him to be gone so much. But she kept her promise and instead used the anchor and mermaid tattoo on his chest for inspiration.

CALDWELL: I used to tell him, I was like, you're my sailor, you know? Like, remember the stories about the women who would wait on the shores for their husbands, whether they would come back or not. And I said, I would just always wait for you even if you never came back. I would just always be there, you know?

ROTT: Robert's mother, Linda, took another approach.

LINDA CALDWELL: I'd say now do you have this, do you have Kleenex, do you have hand wipes, and he'd say, Mom, we have all of this on the truck. We don't need it, you know? It's just - and I'd say now you're going to make sure you're going to brush your teeth and all that stuff.


ROTT: Linda knew that Robert was going to be a firefighter or do something wearing boots instead of a suit since he was a kid. He used to make forts out of sticks and twigs, she says, and would always be the last kid to come in. He always did one other thing too. He'd always say I love you. He said it to everyone, Claire says.

CALDWELL: He'd say it to his best friends. He'd say it to us. He'd say it to every crewmember all the time. I love you, not love you, I love you all the time, and they would always say I love you, too, and they would hug each other. And I was like, wow.

ROTT: They all loved each other, she says. The hotshots, their families, they're all the same. They're all in it together. But it's not just Prescott, she says, and that's what she wants people to remember.

CALDWELL: There's guys out there risking their lives right now, being away from their families right now. And I don't want it to be like just because this happened, finally, they get their recognition because they were doing it before and they're going to keep doing it forever. So when you see a hotshot, hotshot family, like, honor that.

ROTT: Robert Caldwell was 23. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Prescott, Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.