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Yarnell firefighter's widow gives birth to daughter

7:39 AM, Oct 14, 2013   |    comments
This undated photo provided by the Crown King Fire Department shows firefighter Anthony Rose. Rose, 23, was one of 19 firefighters killed while battling an out-of-control wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., on June 30, 2013.(Photo: AP/Crown King Fire Department)
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PHOENIX -- When Anthony Rose and his fiancee, Tiffany Hettrick, found out in February that they were going to have a baby, they called his mother in Illinois from their home in Prescott Valley, Ariz.

Anthony started, "Mom, I've got something to tell you -"

On the other end of the line, Athena Sperry gleefully interjected: "She's pregnant!"

In May, the couple found out that their baby is a girl, and chose a name together. They didn't tell anyone else; it would be their secret until the day she was born.

But by the end of June, Anthony was gone. He had been working, battling the Yarnell Hill Fire southwest of Prescott, and was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots trapped and killed in the wildfire.

On Thursday, the day that would have been her father's 24th birthday, Anthony and Tiffany's baby girl, Willow Mae Rose, was born.

"It feels awesome. I can't wait to hold her when I come out there," Athena said.

In Arizona, seemingly everyone knows the story of the hotshots, especially in Prescott and Prescott Valley. There are memorials and purple ribbons, and the firefighters' families have one another to lean on. Tiffany's family lives in Racine, Wis., but she waited here in Arizona for her baby to come, surrounded by friends who understand her loss.

But nearly 1,800 miles away in Anthony's hometown of Beach Park, Ill., the Sperry house is alone in its expression of grief. It is the home with 19 small American flags stuck in the grass in the front yard.

Anthony was the oldest of Athena Sperry's three children, and she can still see him everywhere: eating cereal in the kitchen before school, riding his bike up the driveway, skateboarding at the park.

She dreams about Anthony, and then wakes to see the framed picture of him next to her rosary on the nightstand. And then she remembers, again, that he is gone.

"Oh, damn," she says softly.

The youngest hotshot children

Three of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were about to become fathers for the first time.

Sean Jaxon Herbert Misner, the son of firefighter Sean Misner and his wife, Amanda, was first to arrive, born on Aug. 22. He's named after his father, but his family calls him "Jax" for short.

Willow Mae is here now, a healthy baby born to a mother who wants only privacy.

And Roxanne Warneke, wife of hotshot Billy Warneke, is expecting a baby girl in December. She plans to name her Billie Grace, after Billy.

Anthony is lost

On June 30, Athena Sperry's husband, Michael, was watching the 10 p.m. news when he heard about the Yarnell Hill Fire and called out to Athena. She stared at the TV and shook her head.

"If it was Anthony, we would have heard something," she said. "It can't be. It can't be."

Athena called Anthony's cellphone. It went straight to voicemail. She sent a text message to Tiffany, but didn't get a response. That was when she knew something was wrong; Tiffany always answered her texts. Always.

An hour passed, indescribably slow. She tried Anthony's number again. And then Tiffany called.

"I knew," Athena says.

"I knew instantly when I answered the phone."

She handed the phone to Michael. Anthony's sister, Rhonda, who goes by Ronnie, collapsed, sobbing. Athena trailed down the hallway into Anthony's old room and sat on the edge of his bed, crying. Her son, Alex, 18, crept in and sat next to her, silent.

None of them slept that night. It passed as if in slow motion, with one phone call after another. The following days were a blur: people coming and going, the refrigerator filling with food. A landscaper mowed the yard and put down mulch without being asked. Someone left a box of doughnuts on the hood of her car.

Athena couldn't travel to Prescott because of illness, so her brother and Ronnie went to represent the family. Anthony's ashes came home in a heart-shaped box, about the size of a Faberge egg, with an American flag on the lid.

Athena watched when the plane carrying his ashes arrived at the Waukegan Regional Airport on July 10. Two air rescue trucks shot streams of water into the air, forming an archway. More than 40 fire trucks from all over the state followed the hearse to the funeral home, and people lined the route, waving flags and holding signs that read, "Our hero."

The next day, hundreds of firefighters walked single-file through the funeral home to salute Anthony one last time.

Willow forever

This was Anthony's second year with the hotshots, and he liked that the work was seasonal, from April to November. The time he had off would have let him be there for his daughter - feedings and diaper changes, cries in the night and long walks in the stroller.

"That's the hardest thing," Athena said. "That baby is never really going to know how great her daddy was."

So she will tell her granddaughter stories about Anthony, how excited he was that she was coming, the funny things he did as a kid and how brave he was in the end.

She will give Willow her daddy's old yellow Tonka truck, the one he used to push Ronnie around the house on.

"I think that's what is keeping me strong; I know I have a granddaughter coming," Athena said before Willow's arrival. "I hope to God she has his bright blue eyes."

Even if the baby's eyes don't turn out to be blue like her father's, Athena says she'll have the name he helped choose for her. And that is forever.

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