Artists memorialized firefighters following Storm King tragedy

The sculpture that serves as the centerpiece for the Storm King 14 memorial at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Spring was created by Arizona artist Joyce Killebrew.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

The Post Independent continues a week-long series of stories commemorating the 20th anniversary of the July 6, 1994, South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, which claimed the lives of 14 federal wildland firefighters. They will forever be remembered for their brave efforts.

Joyce Killebrew remembers the reaction of one man in particular when she opened her Sedona, Arizona, garage studio in early 1995 to unveil a clay sculpture that would become part of the Storm King 14 monument in Glenwood Springs’ Two Rivers Park.

“I expected a few people to come and take a look before I hauled it to the foundry, but the cars were lined all the way up the driveway from the main road,” Killebrew recalled in a phone interview earlier this week.

“One of the doctors from town was there, and I’ll never forget that he just looked at the clay sculpture and wept,” she said. “That told me I had accomplished what I needed to.

“All arts are a language,” Killebrew said. “It may not be the most fabulous sculpture in the world, but it hit an emotional chord somehow, and I thank God for that. It didn’t come from me, I was just the instrument.”

Killebrew, who now lives and sculpts in Prescott, Arizona, was selected 20 years ago by the local Storm King 14 Monument Committee for her sculpture design, which stands as a tribute to the 14 wildland firefighters who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain outside Glenwood Springs on July 6, 1994.

Her work depicting a smokejumper, a female hot shot, to represent the four women who were among those killed, and a helitack crew member, serves as the centerpiece for the Storm King 14 memorial in Two Rivers Park.

Ringing the sculpture are 14 boulders, each carrying a plaque with the biography of one of the fallen firefighters, along with natural vegetation that can be found on the mountain.

Killebrew was one of two artists commissioned for separate sculptures honoring the firefighters who lost their lives that summer.

Local sculptor David Nelson of Marble, who had been a finalist for the Glenwood Springs memorial, was selected the following year to create a similar tribute to firefighters in Prineville, Oregon, home to nine of the 14.

To help come up with a fitting tribute, Nelson said he interviewed relatives of those who died, as well as survivors who were on Storm King Mountain that day.

“We wanted it to be for all wildland firefighters, both living and deceased,” Nelson said. “These people are unsung heros, no doubt about it. They put their lives on the line.”

His sculpture, which sits in Prineville’s town park, depicts three hot shot crew members. One is a female, another a Caucasian male and the other a Hispanic male. A feather hangs from the helmet of the sawyer who is shown cutting a tree, representing the many Native Americans who serve on federal firefighting crews.

Two members of the Prineville team who died on Storm King, Terri Hagen and Roger Roth, were Native American, both from the Onondaga tribe of the Iroquois Nation.

Personal connection

For Killebrew, being selected for the Glenwood Springs memorial was an honor not only because she had just started sculpting at the time, but because she had been a firefighter for many years prior to that.

She had worked for Coconino National Forest in Arizona, both on the fire lines when she was younger and as a lookout at a fire watch tower.

“I had retired and had begun pursuing my sculpting career at the time the Storm King fire happened,” Killebrew said.

She was on her way to an art show in Taos, New Mexico, when she heard the news on the radio.

“I had to pull over, I just felt like I had been sucker-punched,” she said. “For any of us who have been involved in any kind of firefighting, there is a sense of camaraderie that we all feel.”

It’s a connection she still feels today.

“I decided I had to do something with art to honor those who died,” she said. “I had to express my grief.”

At the time, she didn’t know that Glenwood Springs was looking to erect a memorial to the fallen firefighters. When she called one day asking if she could sell some small sculptures to contribute to the memorial fund that had been established, it was suggested she apply for consideration as the chosen artist to do the monument piece.

“The largest thing I had ever sculpted were some tabletop pieces,” Killebrew said. “It was most humbling when I was selected, and it was really the experience of a lifetime for me.”

One of the biggest challenges, she said, was the tight time frame in which to complete the sculpture.

“I started doing the clay work at the end of that December, and located a foundry in Tucson that said they thought they could do it before the one-year anniversary,” said Killebrew, who got the clay on Dec. 31, and had to finish the clay sculpture by Feb. 1.

“It was pretty grueling work, and I was working in a neighbor’s garage that was uninsulated, putting in 16-hour days,” she said.

The sculpture was dedicated in Glenwood Springs on July 6, 1995. Killebrew was in Glenwood Springs for the 10th anniversary in 2004, but is not able to make it for Sunday’s 20th anniversary commemoration.

“I’m still sculpting,” she said. “I have a nice studio here in Prescott, and I have students come out once or twice a week, mostly retired folks.”

A 20th-anniversary commemorative medallion with an image of her sculpture is being given to family members here for this weekend’s events. Killebrew has also prepared 1,994 limited-edition trophy-size versions of the sculpture to sell this year for the anniversary.

Living tribute

The Prineville monument has even more meaning now for Nelson and his wife, Patty, than it did when he began working on it after the Storm King fire.

Their daughter, Laura Nelson, is a part-time reserve for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department and a volunteer with Colorado River Fire Rescue, which serves New Castle, Silt and Rifle.

The sculpture itself is decidedly different than the one in Glenwood Springs, Nelson said, serving as a lasting tribute to all firefighters.

“It is totally three-dimensional, showing the firefighters on the ground at an actual fire,” he said. “It also shows the youth of these people who gave their lives, and to me that’s what I see when I look at it.”

The Storm King 14 ranged in age from their early 20s to mid-40s.

“When they had me come up to Prineville for the interview, one of the fathers handed me an envelope with a photo of his daughter,” Nelson recalls today. “I wasn’t emotionally ready to look at it then, but when I did I just wept.

“The whole project for Patty and I was very emotional,” he said.

Nelson has been a professional sculptor for 30 years, working out of his studio in Marble. His work can be found locally in Glenwood Springs, including the kayaker sculpture outside American National Bank by the intersection of South Grand Avenue and 27th Street and the famous Alpine Bank eagle statues.

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