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August 7th, 2013
06:09 PM ET

Widow of elite firefighter killed in Arizona blaze fights for benefits

It has been over a month since 19 families lost their loved ones in a wildfire, when an elite group of firefighters known as Hotshots were killed by a blaze in Arizona.

Now, one of the victims' widows is speaking out, saying the city is denying her the lifetime benefits she needs to raise her four children.

Since her husband died, "it's [been] a roller coaster," said Juliann Ashcraft, 29-year-old widow of firefighter Andrew Ashcraft.

The only survivor of the Hotshot crew, Brendan McDonough, was separated from the rest of his crew when they died, and recently spoke with ABC.

"I was still with our vehicle and one of our buggies, and I could hear, whoever didn't bring their phones, I could hear their phones ringing, knowing it was their wives, their family. I sunk, I sunk into my seat, I sunk into myself, I couldn't think," said McDonough.

Hearing those words for the first time, Ashcraft became emotional. Hearing about the cell phones ringing brought tears to her eyes, "but I'm okay today," she said in a wavering voice.

The young mother is currently facing a battle with city officials, who say her husband was a seasonal employee for the city, and therefore not eligible for lifetime benefits.

"The benefits package that they ... have presented to us would basically be a government benefit that would come in, as well as a work man's compensation, and that would be it," said Ashcraft.

"But it would not include the things that the other six full-timers are receiving," said Ashcraft.

Ashcraft told city officials her husband was a full-time worker, but she said their response was rude and unprofessional, and one even made a personal attack.  

"I mentioned to the HR department that my husband did work full time, my kids and I sent him off to work 12 months a year for the city of Prescott, and her response to me was it must be a marriage Issue, that perhaps we had bad communication in our marriage is why I did not understand his employment status," said Ashcraft.

Later on, when Ashcraft and the HR official circled back to the issue, "She said, 'Maybe you're referring to the fact that he applied to be a full-time employee, but we did not select him, he was never even our second pick, he was always our last pick,'" Ashcraft recalled.

Fighting back tears, Ashcraft said she was with her husband on the day he was called and promoted to a lead promotion, that in his first year of service he was rookie of the year, and that he exceeded expectations.

"For her to say that he was not someone they would select for a supervisor position when in fact they had done that, was an an attack on his character, and it was offensive to me and my family," said Ashcraft.

Prescott, Arizona is a small city, and the homepage of its website said the city "continues to grieve the recent loss of 19 of our finest men."

But Ashcraft said she and other family survivors received a chilly reception when they met with city officials.

"I just felt no compassion. I kind of expected to go in there and they would feel like they had lost great employees as well. There was just no sense of loss or devastation on their part whatsoever," said Ashcraft.

The 29-year-old widow said she went to the meeting with legal counsel, and "felt horrible for the families that went in there or must who have gone in without any legal counsel, because it was rude and unprofessional."

Ashcraft said she and other family survivors have six months to file a lawsuit, if they wish to do so.

"Certainly we reserve our right to do that if it comes to that. That is not my hope. My hope is a resolve of this issue, that amicably we can come together and decide how to fix this.

"I don't want any sort of anger or animosity towards anybody, but I am a single mother of four children. And that's why my husband was working, to be able to provide for us. And I have to fight for what he already earned. It's sad that I have to go this way," said Ashcraft.

The young mother said state officials and the fire department of Prescott have done a lot to support her and the other survivors.

Read: Remembering the firefighters killed in the Arizona blaze

Ashcraft said she wants everyone to remember her husband as a loving man, with a strong work ethic.

"Andrew had just a little spark about him that he always - you always knew he was there. He was happy. He was full of life. He lived every day to the fullest. So in 29 years, he lived a life he can be proud of, and lived every moment," said Ashcraft.

If you want to make a donation to the family members and survivors of the 19 firefighres, you can go to Prescott Firefighters Charities, or the 100 Club.


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