Witnesses to Yarnell Hill Fire break silence - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

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Witnesses to Yarnell Hill Fire break silence

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Hikers Joy Collura and Tex Gilligan. Hikers Joy Collura and Tex Gilligan.
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YARNELL, AZ (CBS5) -

From first appearances, Tex Gilligan and Joy Collura make an unlikely pair.

He is a weathered old cowboy and she is a blonde chef who grew up in the Valley.

But their mutual appreciation for the Arizona countryside landed them on the Weaver Mountain range and in the path of the Yarnell Hill Fire on Sunday, June 30.

"We love to hike, both of us," said Gilligan, as he made his way between the charred black boulders and scorched manzanita skeletons.

The hikers agreed to take CBS 5 Investigates to the top of the mountain range and tell the story of what and who they saw that day, two weeks before.

"When we passed them they were spent. We looked at them," said Gilligan.

They came face to face with the Granite Mountain Hotshots. They spoke on three separate occasions that morning, talking about the location of the fire line and the firefighters' strategy.

"We saw them and I think it's so surreal for me to this day that I'm the last one to see them, as a civilian hiker," said Collura, who snapped pictures of the firefighters and the fire as it transformed from a low-lying brush fire into a raging killer.

"It went up more than a quarter mile in less than 14 minutes and I said, 'Let's get the hell out of here,'" said Gilligan.

On the way off the mountain, they found themselves on a ridge overlooking a ranch one mile below. An area around the ranch house had been cleared of brush, and it appeared to be a safe spot to fall back to as the fire made its approach.

But Gilligan knew the terrain below and the thick vegetation would make the hike to the ranch perilous.

"The deception is what can kill you. It's a trap. It's actually a basin full of manzanita," said Gilligan.

The hikers dropped down the backside of the mountain, into terrain with less fuel, although the hike to safety appeared much farther.

An hour later, the Granite Mountain crew found themselves on the same ridge. But they made a break for the ranch.

"One decision made the difference in 19 lives," said Gilligan.

Gilligan and Collura said they hope their story and their pictures will help to fill in some blanks about where the firefighters were that morning, where their equipment was and how the vegetation blocked their escape.

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.