'The strongest and bravest young man I have ever met'
A 24-year-old firefighter from West Linn, Ore. was among the 19 firefighters killed during Sunday's massive wildfire in Arizona, his brother told KATU on Monday.
John Percin Jr. died while battling the fire that destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, Ariz., a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has ordered all flags at public institutions to be flown at half-staff on Wednesday in honor of Percin Jr.
The governor said in a news release Tuesday that Percin gave his life to protect people, property and natural resources. He said all Oregonians should take a moment to remember Percin's bravery and sacrifice.
It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years and the deadliest single day for firefighters since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Percin, a 2007 West Linn High School graduate, was part of the Granite Mountain "Hotshots," an elite firefighting force based in Prescott, Ariz.
In high school, he played several sports and was a likable student, said classmate Geoff McEvers.
"He had an unforgettable laugh and he definitely won't be forgotten," McEvers said.
Percin loved baseball. In his aunt's eyes, he was simply, "an amazing young man."
"He was probably the strongest and bravest young man I have ever met in my life," Donna Percin Pederson said in an interview with The Associated Press from her home in Portland.
John Percin Sr. declined to comment Monday. "It's not a good time right now."
Some took to Facebook to voice their grief over Percin's death.
"I just lost my best friend. I love you, brother," Kirk Warren wrote on his Facebook page.
"R.I.P. John Percin Jr. Thank you for protecting us and you will be missed," wrote Justin McCullough. "You were a great guy and friend. You made people laugh, Big Country we will remember you. Our thoughts and prayers go out to friends and family to other lost ones."
The last day of Percin's life started with a prayer: "Lord, watch over us as we go into battle! Amen," he posted on his Facebook page at 6:23 Sunday morning. But by Sunday afternoon, the battle was over.
The wildfire he and his team were fighting morphed from dangerous to monstrous after the wind shifted and the fire grew from 200 acres to 2,000.
With almost no warning, fire surrounded, trapped and killed the 19 men.
Before becoming a firefighter, Percin struggled with personal problems. In 2010, Arizona was his escape and salvation.
He found a mentor, friend and companion in a man named Mike Jones.
"He had a lifelong dream to be a firefighter," Jones said by phone Monday. "He overcame some obstacles."
Percin washed dishes at a Mexican restaurant part time and saved money. And late last year he graduated from the fire academy.
"I lived upstairs, and he lived downstairs," Jones said. "He came upstairs. He had this huge smile on his face. He's like, 'I did it. I passed." He pumped his fist. He was just so excited. He had some tears in his eyes. He said, 'I can't believe I'm finally living my dream.'
The Associated Press contributed to this report.