NBC10.com - Nefertiti Jaquez
The father of one of the 19 elite firefighters killed in the Arizona wildfire speaks to NBC10. The father says his son, Robert Caldwell, was a diehard Philly sports fan and passionate about his job. NBC10's Nefertiti Jaquez has the story.
One of the 19 elite firefighters killed in this weekend’s Arizona wildfire grew up in the Philadelphia area.
Robert Caldwell, a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, died Sunday as his team worked to contain the Yarnell Hills fire near Prescott, Ariz.
Caldwell’s family moved out west about 18 years ago, but the 23-year-old was born and raised in Richboro, Bucks County, Pa.
"We are extremely proud of him and we just want the rest of the world to know that," Dave Caldwell, Robert's father told NBC10.com Tuesday.
Dave Caldwell said he last saw his son, the youngest of two children and the family's only son, shortly before he left to fight the wild blaze.
"I had dinner with him before he went on this fire," the father said. "He smiled and waved to me. That's the last time I saw my son."
Family friend Mark Ciccone said Robert was "every man's son." He calls Robert's death "brutal."
“He’s the kind of kid you want to have some day,” he said. “If you were broken down on the side of the road, he would be the guy that would stop and fix it for you."
A rabid Eagles and Phillies fan, Robert would frequently travel back to the Philadelphia area along with his dad to see his grandmother and catch games at the Linc and Citizens Bank Park.
"He was a diehard fan," said Dave Caldwell. "In fact the night I saw him last he was wearing a Phillies shirt. On the back it said, "Hating the Mets until the day I die.'"
“He worshiped Brian Dawkins,” said Ciccone. “He never became a Cardinals fan or Diamondbacks fan. He would fight with all the fans out there.”
Adrienne Ciccone, Mark's daughter, would often go to Eagles games with Robert and their dads. She remembered one time, in particular, that showcased his “sweet, nice” personality.
“I would always complain that my dad would never buy me a foam finger,” she said. “And he disappeared for a few minutes and then he came back with a foam finger for me.”
“Even though he loved Arizona, he always had that soft spot for Philly,” she said.
Robert, who’s been described as “The Smart One” by friends, wasn’t sure what to do after high school – until he found firefighting.
“He was smart, but wasn’t interested in college,” Mark Ciccone said. “I talked to him about the army, but he really didn’t want to go into the army. Then he hooked on to the local fire department.”
He says Robert immediately began working towards becoming a member of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots team. Described as the "Delta Force" of firefighting, the Hotshots are required to complete rigorous physical and mental training. They’re also prepared to stay out in the wilderness for two weeks fighting fires.
“He knew the danger of his job,” Adrienne Ciccone said. “He loved his job and he was just a really nice, sweet kid.”
Despite his heartbreak, Dave Caldwell takes solace in the fact that his son died doing what he loved.
"I do take great solace," he said. "Robert died doing what he loved doing. He took great pride in what he did."
Robert, who married last November, is survived by his wife Claire and 5-year-old stepson Zion.
"He cared a great deal for his new wife and stepson," the father said.
The Caldwell family is also grieving the loss of another family member, Robert’s cousin Grant McKee. McKee, 21, was also a Granite Mountain Hotshots member and died beside Robert.
A memorial service is expected to be held later this week to remember Robert.