COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- As many people around Colorado left work on Tuesday evening to begin their Fourth of July celebrations, there were hundreds of workers in Colorado Springs just punching in.
Down in the Springs, ash-covered men returned from a 16-hour shift battling the Waldo Canyon Fire with bright smiles piercing through their darkened faces. Others were just beginning their own 16-hour shifts that would carry over into the holiday.
Despite the despair and destruction that surrounded the Incident Command Center at Holmes Middle School, joy and laughter filled the air as firefighters met a group of Broncos that made the trip down to show their appreciation.
"It means the world to our firefighters," Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr said. "To have people that they look up to every night during football season to come back and turn back to them and say, 'No, we're looking up to you right now and we're watching you on television.' That means the world to them."
The group of Broncos included fullback Chris Gronkowski, defensive end Ben Garland, linebacker Mike Mohamed, cornerback Ramzee Robinson, a trio of cheerleaders and team Chaplain Chip Simmons. They spent three hours signing autographs, taking pictures and laughing with the firefighters and support personnel working around the clock to save homes and lives from the fire that raged on in the distance.
The visit represented the second such trip the Broncos have made, with the first coming in Fort Collins last week. The team also announced a donation of $50,000 to help support the Colorado Wildfire victims.
Upon arriving at the Incident Command Center, Marr and Incident Commander Rich Harvey met the group and briefed them on the status of the fire. From there, they led a tour of the command center including stops in the finance department and situation room.
Marr and Harvey showed the group maps of how the fire has spread and talked about the firefighting operations and strategic planning.
The group stopped to take photos and sign autographs along the tour with the constant stream of smiling firefighters that celebrated the presence of the Broncos crew – along with the constant stream of rain that fell during the visit.
"The reaction was incredible," Gronkowski said. "A lot of the guys out here said it was the first time people had come down to see them so they were real appreciative. At the same time, we saw what they were doing. We learned about the fires and the whole process – 16-hour shifts with eight-hour breaks that they're sleeping in the dirt in their tents out here."
After the tour, the players and cheerleaders had dinner with firefighters that were preparing to head up in the mountains to begin their shifts. Each player and cheerleader sat at separate tables to get to know the individuals doing the work on the ground to push back the fire that was 80 percent contained as of Tuesday evening.
Learning about what went into fighting the fire was an eye-opener for the players, who expressed their thanks with each hand that they shook.
"It's crazy what they do and right from here they're going to be driving to the next fire," Gronkowski said. "I'm definitely appreciative and that that really shows you what it's all about, what they really do and how much work other people do that you don't see."
With smoke visible from the school, the presence of the players, cheerleaders and Miles helped lighten the mood and uplift the spirits of the men and women that have spent the last two weeks sleeping in tents while battling the blaze.
"For me personally, it just gave me an opportunity to come down and show my appreciation and thankfulness for the sacrifice that everyone has made out here collectively," Robinson said. "Just seeing how it comes together and the progress that has been made. For me, just coming out and encouraging and just showing how much we are appreciative of the job they've been doing."
For Garland, who attended the Air Force Academy just a few miles away from the command center, the fire especially hit home as his grandparents' house was destroyed in the flames.
Despite the loss of property, Garland focused on the positive. His sister's and uncle's houses survived the flames due to the work of the same men and women that he had the opportunity to meet.
"It's meant a ton just to be able to thank the people that saved my uncle's home, my sister's home – the fire was right there and expected to take over that whole area where their houses were," Garland said. "To be able to go to their houses and to have my family there and safe, that means the world to me to be able to thank these guys."
While the firefighters were clearly excited about the opportunity to meet the Broncos contingent, the group of players and cheerleaders were equally happy be there to brighten the spirits of the people fighting the blaze.
"They were excited to see us," Garland said. "But it really was our honor to meet them and greet them and see those firefighters out there protecting my family's homes."