PRESCOTT, Ariz. — For 33 minutes on June 30, as 19 members of an elite firefighting crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots marched through a burning forest south of this city in central Arizona, no one knew for sure where they were or why they descended from the safety of a ridge they had been traveling and onto a basin where they would die.
That fact, revealed in an official investigative report on the fire that was released Saturday, explains one of several unanswered questions surrounding the event, the deadliest day for firefighters since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and perhaps the most vexing: Why did the men end up where they did?
The report, the result of a three-month investigation by a panel of firefighting experts, did not assign blame for the tragedy and affirmed that the fallen firefighters followed proper procedures. Still, it outlined several problems, like radios that sometimes did not work properly, updates that did not give a precise sense of the crew's movements and the 33-minute period of radio silence.
"Nobody will ever know how the crew actually saw their situation, the options they considered or what motivated their actions," said the report, issued by the Arizona State Forestry Division.
The crew left the village of Yarnell, where the fire started, and traveled parallel to the flames, building a fire line as a way to contain the blaze.
The firefighters traveled southeast near a ridge top, the report said, before descending toward a ranch in Yarnell, perhaps in an attempt to reposition themselves and get back to fighting the flames.
The report said the crew "did not perceive excessive risk." Winds from a thunderstorm that had been forecast to roll over the area hooked the flames and sent them straight toward the 19 firefighters during the 33 minutes in which there was no contact between them and the commanders.
As the men descended from the ridge, they gradually lost sight of the fire. As they entered the basin at the base of the mountain, flames emerged ahead of them, leaving them no option to escape, the report said. A plane loaded with fire retardant was flying over the area at the time, but its pilot had no clear sense of where the men were.
During a news conference here Saturday, Jim Karels, the Florida state forester, who was in charge of the investigative team, said the team could not tell whether the firefighters could have been saved if there had been no lapse in communication between the crew and the commanders.
"The outcome is something we can't determine," Karels said.