Trending Topics

Freeway named after fallen Ariz. Hotshot firefighter

Kevin Woyjeck, 21, was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who was killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire


The Orange County Register

SEAL BEACH, Calif. — Maddie Woyjeck knows exactly how her big brother would react to seeing a freeway sign erected in his name.

“He’d be like, ‘Mom, Dad, take that down!’” she said. “He did not like to draw attention to himself.”

Yet one of the nation’s busiest interchanges, where I-405 meets the 22 and I-605, is soon to become the Kevin Woyjeck Memorial Highway.

Kevin Woyjeck, along with 18 other Granite Mountain Hotshots, died fighting an Arizona wildfire almost three years ago. The Los Alamitos High graduate was 21, fresh out of the fire academy and following in the footsteps of his father, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

On Monday, the California Legislature will vote – as a matter of formality – to put Kevin Woyjeck’s name on a 4-mile stretch of I-405 that cuts through his hometown, Seal Beach.

His dad, Joe Woyjeck, struck upon the idea last year after he noticed other freeway memorials. He contacted Assemblyman Travis Allen, whose district includes Seal Beach. Allen agreed to sponsor a bill approving the privately funded tribute, which is expected to go up within a year.

“Kevin was a local hero,” Allen said. “The whole community admires his courage and feels the loss. It was important to me that we commemorate the life and sacrifice of this bright kid who had a great future in front of him.”

Joe and Anna Woyjeck will be there to witness the vote.

“I’ll never understand why he was taken away so young,” Anna said. “It’s up to the people who loved him to keep his legacy alive.”

Joe Woyjeck said he hopes the sign can include the words “Granite Mountain Hotshots” to acknowledge everyone who perished.

“I’m torn about singling Kevin out,” he said. “He was part of a crew, part of a team.”

Kevin Woyjeck had joined that team two months before the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire, which would become the sixth-deadliest firefighter catastrophe in U.S. history.

Freckle-faced and often mistaken for a teenager, Woyjeck was eager to do battle. A few days before moving on to the Yarnell blaze, he sent an excited text message to his dad while closing in on another blaze:

“25 miles away. We see smoke,” he messaged.

“Get your calm on,” his father counseled.

“Everyone’s calm,” Kevin Woyjeck responded. “Don’t worry.”

And, in fact, the veteran firefighter wasn’t particularly worried then, nor about his son’s next assignment.

“There was nothing abnormal about the fires,” Joe Woyjeck said.

On the evening of June 30, Joe Woyjeck and his wife joined friends for dinner, unaware that their son’s crew was trapped in a fire that had suddenly changed directions.

Their son, Bobby, then 19, learned from online stories that his brother’s crew was missing. His parents had just returned home and were chatting with neighbors when they got Bobby’s panicked call.

“I made calls to Prescott,” Joe Woyjeck said. “I asked, ‘Was it a burn-over?’ That’s all I needed to know.”

He also instinctively understood that the men would have crawled into aluminum pup tents designed to reflect intense heat.

“Deploying fire shelters is a last-ditch effort,” Joe Woyjeck said. “It is almost never successful.”

Seal Beach police and Orange County Fire officials knocked on the Woyjecks’ door at 10 that night.

At a memorial service in Prescott for the 19 firefighters, Vice President Joe Biden gave families his cellphone number. The Woyjecks said they have not forgotten the compassion Biden showed during that devastating time.

“When his son Beau died, we had a condolence card hand-delivered,” Joe Woyjeck said. “He has suffered tremendous loss, too.”

There also is comfort, his father said, that, in Kevin Woyjeck’s final moments, he was surrounded by another family – his crew.

Pulling out her iPad, Anna Woyjeck pointed to a diagram laying out the positions where the firefighters’ bodies were found, each one identified.

“The older guys formed a fortress around Kevin,” she said. “They were protective of him.”

The Hotshots’ relatives have bonded over their shared tragedy. Some occasionally visit the Woyjecks in Seal Beach.

“When you get to know the family and hear their stories, you feel like you know the person who died,” Maddie Woyjeck said. “You can feel his spirit.”

She also loves reminiscing about the brother she reveres – about his adeptness at country-Western dancing, his obsession with fishing, his low-key personality, his natural kindness.

“I couldn’t stay mad at him for more than 30 seconds,” she said.

Last summer, the state of Arizona settled a lawsuit filed by 12 of the families, including the Woyjecks, claiming that a breakdown in communication between the Hotshots and the Prescott Fire Department contributed to the firefighters’ deaths. The issues could be highlighted in a movie about the disaster, now in pre-production. The film, titled “No Exit,” stars Josh Brolin and Miles Teller.

Meanwhile, the family is finally starting to heal.

“The hurt will always be there, but we are getting better,” Anna Woyjeck said. “Slowly, you start making it through a day without crying. Slowly, you live in optimism again.”

She has much to look forward to. Again, she pointed to an image on her iPad – this one, a panoramic view of the Malibu hilltop where Bobby Woyjeck, an emergency medical technician in Monterey, and his fiancée, Amanda Bodeman, will marry next summer.

Joe Woyjeck finds purpose in the Kevin Woyjeck Explorers for Life Association. The organization raises scholarship money for young people entering the nationwide Explorer Program, where they learn about a career in fire service.

Like the charity, the freeway sign is about more than preserving memory of a lost loved one, he said.

“It will be a daily reminder for people driving by that life can be short, so live it to the fullest,” Joe Woyjeck said. “That’s definitely what Kevin did.”

Copyright 2016 The Orange County Register
All Rights Reserved