LAKE OSWEGO — The ashes of an Oregon high school graduate who was among 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona wildfire have been returned home.
The family of John Percin Jr. brought the marble urn aboard a jet that landed Wednesday at Portland International Airport. An Oregon Department of Forestry truck then led a procession of fire trucks and police cars to the leafy suburb of Lake Oswego, stopping at a brick fire station a couple of blocks from the family's church.
The Department of Forestry truck parked just outside the station's flag-festooned driveway. As firefighters saluted, a member of the Oregon Fire Service honor guard, holding the urn, left the truck and slowly walked into the lobby. He placed the urn on a table, between a folded American flag and a large photo of Percin. A 24-hour rotating watch of firefighters will remain with the ashes until the family's private memorial service on Friday.
"They're coming from Portland and all the way from Roseburg, people who are willing to help and feel it's an honor to watch John until his proper burial," said Gert Zoutendijk, the Lake Oswego fire marshal.
Percin, 24, died June 30 when a wind-driven wildfire overran an elite firefighting crew as it tried to protect a small Arizona town. The 19 deaths represented the nation's biggest loss of wilderness firefighters in 80 years. Vice President Joe Biden and thousands of firefighters and law enforcement officers were among those who paid respects to the men Tuesday at a packed memorial service in Prescott Valley, Ariz.
Percin was raised in Oregon and graduated from West Linn High School, where he played basketball and football. He moved to Arizona almost three years ago.
A few dozen people lined the sidewalk across the street from the fire station as the procession arrived Wednesday. Dressed in summer clothes, they placed their hands over their hearts. Above them, a worker in a financial planner's office scrambled to put a large American flag in a window.
Percin's family entered the fire station outside the view of television cameras and did not speak with reporters. Chaplain Steve Brodehl consoled Percin's parents and two brothers during the brief ceremony that included no speeches.
"I've been the chaplain almost 25 years and I still don't know (what to say); there are no words," Brodehl said. "I just looked at John Sr. and told him, as a dad, 'Oh my God. I can't even imagine. I can't imagine what your heart's feeling.'
"Sometimes I think we try so hard to fill those spaces with words, when we really just need to stand beside them and be that officer of calm, so to speak, that place to lean."
The public may pay tribute at the fire station from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today. A public memorial service is planned at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin.