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Hotshots remembered

Grant McKee and Robert Caldwell, killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona, are memorialized with a solemn procession and church service.

July 20, 2013|By Jill Cowan
  • Members of the Anaheim Fire Depatment's Search and Rescue team carry the remains of Grant McKee, 21, for his memorial service in the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church sanctuary, Saturday. McKee grew up in Costa Mesa and was one of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighting crew killed in fast moving wildfire in Prescott, AZ.
Members of the Anaheim Fire Depatment's Search… (Don Leach, Daily…)

The faces of Grant McKee and Robert Caldwell, superimposed over stars and stripes, grinned out at a couple hundred friends, family members and firefighters from around Orange County who had gathered at the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach on Saturday morning.

The group had come to remember cousins McKee, 21, and Caldwell, 23, who were among the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona.

Dozens of onlookers lined the sidewalks as fire engines and police cars escorted a hearse and limousines bearing family members to the church. Inside, Orange County Fire Authority Pipes and Drums played "America the Beautiful" as they posted flags on either side of the stage.

Speakers at the memorial described McKee and Caldwell as always smiling — a close-knit pair who put others before themselves.

"They had courage, and they loved," said Scott McKee, Grant McKee's father. "They loved everybody in here."

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McKee was raised in Costa Mesa, living with his and Caldwell's grandmother, longtime resident Mae Hoffmann, for part of that time. He attended Newport-Mesa schools from second grade until his senior year at Newport Harbor High, when he moved to Arizona to live with Caldwell and his mother.

He had fallen in with a hard-partying crowd and had started using drugs, family members have said.

Kirk Norton, who coached McKee when he played for Norton's Pop Warner Pee Wee football team, remembered McKee as the type of kid who never complained, even when life might have given him reason.

"I knew him as a team player, and he went out as a team player," Norton told the group.

One season, Norton recalled, "Grant should've played running back, but we had a bunch of running backs." McKee offered to play a different position instead.

"He said, 'Coach, I'll block. I'll block for these guys,'" Norton said. "And he did."

When McKee got to Arizona, Caldwell took his younger cousin under his wing.

"'I just want to do what Robert does'," Caldwell's sister, Taylor Caldwell recalled McKee saying. "I said, 'What's that all about?' He said, 'It's the brotherhood—and it's cheaper than a gym membership'."

Her brother, she told the group, had a different reason for joining the elite firefighting crew: "I'd rather die in my boots than live in a suit."

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