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Originally published July 5, 2013 at 8:06 PM | Page modified July 8, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Arizona tragedy hits home for parents of Thirtymile fire victim

Every day, Virginia and Will Craven trek from their Roslyn home to a nearby cemetery, where they tend the memorial to their son and three other firefighters who perished in the 2001 Thirtymile fire.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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I know the extended family of Jessica Johnson, I fought forest fires many years ago...m... MORE
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ROSLYN, Kittitas County — It is pushing 90 degrees on this afternoon. Their son awaits.

They’re getting up in years, but at this time of year, Virginia Craven goes twice a day to the nearby memorial honoring Tom Craven and his three fellow Forest Service firefighters.

In the hot weather, the petunias and marigolds would otherwise go dry in the six pots lining the brick walkway to his burial site.

She is 64. Her husband, Will Craven, is 74.

“The last couple of days have been bad days,” he says. “She was crying all the time. I’m one of those people that don’t cry.”

But it’s obvious he still hurts, as he remembers. He toughs it out.

Will Craven is talking about their son, who at age 30 was one of four young Forest Service firefighters who died while engulfed in flames fighting the Thirtymile fire on July 10, 2001, in the tinder-dry Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests.

The calls started coming in to Cravens shortly after the news of the Arizona forest fire that last week killed 19 hotshot firefighters in a forest northwest of Phoenix.

“I hear them talking about it, and it’s the same thing as when Tom passed away,” says Will Craven. “The fire come around the corner, with the wind, and the next thing, it got them. It was the identical story.”

It is early afternoon, and the couple are sitting on the porch of their home in this former coal-mining town of 895 people, these days best known as the filming site for the 1990s TV show “Northern Exposure.”

The couple watched the interviews of the grieving Arizona families.

“They were saying the same thing as we did: They passed away doing what they liked doing, fighting fires,” says Will.

It was all the same, he says. “The white vans coming out all in a row, bringing out the bodies for the autopsy.”

Virginia says, “It hurts. You shut your eye and you picture them burning.”

She brings out a few of the dozens of cards that were sent to the couple after their son was killed. Up until now, she hadn’t even read them, just kept them in a cardboard box.

“It was just hard to look at them,” she says.

One of the cards begins, “In my 45 years as a smokeyjumper-fire suppression specialist I have suffered the loss of several co-workers ... It is always devastating ... it’s like my own son or daughter.”

The Cravens have been married 46 years. They met at a dance.

They had five sons and one daughter, who, at one time or another, all were forest firefighters.

Now only one son, Ted, is a firefighter, the others having gone on to other endeavors.

The parents don’t even try anymore to talk Ted into doing something else.

They tried to talk Tom out of firefighting.

The son already had been in a forest fire in California in which he had to crawl into the protective metal-fiberglass-silica shelter.

“I had a bad feeling,” says Will.

He says the son just replied, “Dad, dad, dad.”

In the Thirtymile fire, the other three who perished were Jessica Johnson, 19, Karen FitzPatrick, 18, and Devin Weaver, 21, all buried in other Central Washington cemeteries.

Tom Craven was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Roslyn, one of 25 separate but adjacent historic cemeteries on 15 acres, with 5,000 graves representing at least 24 nationalities.

Various ethnic and fraternal groups each had their own plots, and Mount Olivet was for the African Americans brought in 1888 during a coal strike, including Will Craven’s father, Sam.

The Craven family stayed in Roslyn through the years, with Will Craven retiring in 2000 after 40 years as the maintenance man for the school district.

In 1975, he was elected mayor of the town, the first elected black mayor in the state, and he served until 1979.

Another job Will Craven had was as gravedigger for the various cemeteries, usually with a pick and shovel, sometimes even using dynamite if there was a huge boulder.

“He dug hundreds and hundreds of graves,” says Virginia.

Says Will, “Sometimes in 30-below weather. Don’t miss it at all.”

And so when his son perished in that forest fire, Will decided he’d build a memorial to Tom Craven and the other three.

“We just didn’t want people to forget,” he says.

With the help of his friends and family, the memorial was done by the end of the summer in which Tom died.

It is impressive, with a 35-foot-long brick path up the hillside, leading to a massive, granite 5-foot-wide headstone, in front of which are not only flowers but Mountain Dew plastic bottles and a can.

“That was Tom’s favorite drink,” says Will. Each year, his son’s friends replace the bottles.

Will didn’t dig his son’s grave. A friend of Tom’s with a backhoe did that, with Will to oversee things.

“It was tough,” says Will, simply.

Over time, he and Virginia kept adding to the memorial.

As you walk through the gate leading to it, there is a display with stories about the funeral, including one showing hundreds of mourners, placed inside plastic to shield them from the elements.

There are numerous garden deer and raccoon decorations, as well as four charred logs, brought from the site where Tom and his teammates perished. Also brought in by his fellow firefighters is a 2,500-pound rock from that site.

On a brick wall behind Tom’s headstone are four plaques, inscribed with the names of the firefighters.

Tom’s headstone has engravings showing loves in his life: a mermaid depicting his wife, Evelyn (they had a daughter, Tomisha, and son, Tshaun); Tom carrying a football (he was a star running back at Cle Elum-Roslyn High School); and Tom in front of a disc jockey control board (he had a weekly radio show at Central Washington University).

The parents say that these days, they keep in touch by phone once a year or so with their daughter-in-law and grandkids, now living in Las Vegas.

They say Tom’s friends still regularly come by the memorial. They leave flowers, and ticket stubs to concerts at the Gorge that they think Tom would have enjoyed.

Each year, as winter nears, Will and Virginia empty out the flowers pots and pack them up, as well as some of the garden decorations, and bring them home.

They don’t want the snow and freezing weather to damage them.

In the springtime, they set it all back up again.

It’s the summertime that they find the most peace at the memorial, they say.

Sitting on one of the two benches there, Virginia says, “It makes me feel good, and close to Tom.”

Says Will, “At least we know where he’s at. We’re lucky that way.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com. Researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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