DRAPER — American flags, fire engines, and thousands of co-workers, friends and complete strangers lined the streets and freeway overpasses to welcome home a fallen hero.
"It's good to have Matt home," Unified Fire Authority Capt. Jay Torgersen said on behalf of fallen Utah firefighter's family Wednesday night.
The body of Draper Battalion Chief Matt "Matty" Burchett, 42, was returned to Utah on Wednesday evening. He was killed in the line of duty in California.
"Utah offered a wonderful sunset on his arrival at the airport today. It's something Matt would have loved," said Torgersen, a longtime friend and co-worker, who read a statement from the Burchett family.
A C130-J plane from the California Air National Guard flew Burchett's casket to Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base, 765 N. 2200 West, where it was then loaded into a hearse and escorted by a processional of fire engines, Utah Highway Patrol motorcycles and Draper police cars along I-215 to the Jenkins-Soffe Mortuary, 1007 S. Jordan Parkway.
At the funeral home, firefighters and citizens lined the street with American flags. The hearse passed under a large U.S. flag hanging from a ladder of a Draper fire engine as it approached, while family and friends awaited Burchett's arrival. Amazing Grace was played on a bagpipe as his casket was unloaded from the hearse and brought into the funeral home.
Funeral services are scheduled for Monday.
American flags also waved from freeway overpasses marking the procession's course from the airport to the mortuary. The mood was somber as firefighters and police officers from Salt Lake and West Valley gathered with some community members on the 2700 South overpass. Salt Lake City firefighter paramedic Daniel Jorgenson said it matched the mood among firefighters in the area this week.
"The atmosphere has been solemn, respectful, a lot of reflection. Thinking about how it could happen to anyone, you know?" said Jorgenson, who became a firefighter a year ago.
When the flashing lights of trooper motorcycles and police cars approached in the darkness, silence fell over the group of 20 to 30 firefighters and police officers as they stood at attention and saluted their fallen brother.
Jorgenson said it was meaningful to be part of the procession to show his respect and appreciation for his fallen brother.
"It's probably been a little bit hard for my wife. She married a firefighter, and she knew what she was getting into ... she's been really, really supportive," Jorgenson said.
Salt Lake City Fire Captain Cass Christopher, who has been with the department for 18 years, said "A lot of us knew him very well and know his family. So it's been a time of reflection for us all, for sure. We all know that our job is dangerous and has those kind of possibilities. But when it's someone you're close to and it's part of your family … it really hits home pretty hard."
"It reminds us all to appreciate the men that you work with every day," Christopher said.
He recalled Burchett "always had a smile" and was "always positive."
"He was the first one to get up and get going, and the last one to sit down," he said.
Christopher said the spouses and older children of many area firefighters have shown concern for them after Burchett's death. "It touched us all, let's just put it that way," he said.
"The fire service is just one big family. All of our wives and kids, we all hang out together, we all know each other and our families grow up together basically. And so it's hard not to have a loss like this and not have it affect us across the board," Christopher said.
After the procession had passed, a battalion chief from out of state who helped plan the procession said it was "such an honor to be a part of it, to pay our respects."
"It shows you that even though we're spread far apart, we're still one very small group … we rely an awful lot on each other," added the battalion chief, who asked not to be named.
The Cal Fire Honor Guard watched over Burchett's body following his death until it could be returned to Utah Wednesday. Members delivered his casket along with an honor guard representative of both the Draper Fire Department and Unified Fire Authority.
Burchett's wife, brother and a family friend were picked up by California Gov. Jerry Brown's plane earlier in the day and flown to California so they could accompany their loved one's casket home.
Torgersen said the family sincerely appreciates the love and support they have received across the country since Burchett's death, noting it "has been unbelievable and has helped ease the pain and made this difficult time a little bit easier for the family."
He said the family was humbled during the procession to see "literally thousands of people who paid their last respects as Matt made his journey home."
Burchett, a veteran firefighter with a speciality in wildland firefighting, was killed Monday while helping crews fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire north of San Francisco. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said a tree fell on Burchett while he was working. He was flown by medical helicopter out of the area to a nearby hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.
About 40 firefighters from Salt Lake City, Draper, Murray, Lone Peak, Provo, Uintah City in Weber County and West Valley City left Utah on Aug. 2 to join more than 12,000 firefighters from throughout the country who are helping California firefighters.
Waiting outside the funeral home on Wednesday, many of Burchett's fellow firefighters were having a hard time coming to terms with the loss of someone who was not only considered the expert in Utah in wildland firefighting, but who was also a great family man and person.
"Matt was a really humble dude, and an expert in his field. And he was respected extremely highly in the fire service," said Unified Fire Authority spokesman Eric Holmes. "We took a pretty devastating loss. It's going to be pretty difficult to get over what Matt brought to everybody.
"You will not find anybody that can speak negatively about him," Holmes continued. "He spent so many hours, so many years perfecting his craft that he was a mentor to everyone, he was a friend to everyone. He's an irreplaceable person and it's difficult to think about what his family is going to have to endure."
Burchett joined the Draper Fire Department in May after serving the Unified Fire Authority for 20 years. He went to California last year to help fight wildfires and became the liaison between California and all of Utah's firefighters.
"It's difficult to imagine the fire service without him," Holmes said. "This is a guy you want to follow on a regular basis. Whether you're in the fire station or whether you're in a park throwing a frisbee. This is a guy you want to hang out with. He is super well respected. It's going to be difficult for a lot of people to sit around the coffee table in the morning and not have that conversation with Matty Burchett."
"Matt was known for his sense of humor, his work ethic, and his desire to make things better. He led by example. He was one of those leaders everyone truly wanted to work with and he truly inspired those he did work with. People didn't work for Matt, they worked with Matt," Torgersen read from the family statement. "Matt's tragic death this week has left a hole in the heart of the Burchett family and in the hearts of all who knew him and had the pleasure of being around him."
Torgersen became emotional as he read one last wish from the Burchett family.
"The Burchett family would also like to remind everybody to reach out to those you love and care about. Put your arm around them. Hug them tightly. Don't take the time for granted. Reach out to those you love. Take advantage of all the time you have and live every day to the fullest. That's truly what Matt did, and that's truly what he wishes for all of us."
A fund has been set up by the Utah Firefighters Emerald Society to help Burchett's family.