A hatch on the side of the single-engine Pilatus plane opened, exposing the flag-draped casket to the small crowd of family, friends and officials huddled in the biting wind outside Missoula’s smokejumper hangar Sunday afternoon.
Four honor guards, two full-dressed representatives each from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, stepped up to lower the casket onto a roller cart.
Kevin Kicking Woman stood nearby, singing a “flag” song with a single drum in his hands as accompaniment for the full-throated voice that, rather than drown out the wind, moved with it, nebulous and clear against the cold.
As the song began, hats came off and weeping started for Darryl "Poor Boy" Elden Vielle, a member of the Blackfeet nation who died in his hotel room Nov. 30 in North Carolina while on assignment leading an eight-member Blackfeet fire crew fighting the Maple Springs fire.
As the casket roller passed into the hangar, Vielle’s mother succumbed to violent sobs that collapsed her into the arms of her family members.
Vielle, 51, had 28 years of firefighting experience, according to a release from the tribe. During his career he served as an engine foreman, crew boss, incident commander and squad boss.
The tribal news release said Vielle "loved his work, loved his community and was also fond of drawing."
He was found dead in his room at the Philips Hotel in Robbinsville, North Carolina, according to the release. Emergency personnel gave him CPR but thought he had been dead for several hours. An autopsy was ordered to determine the cause of death.
His mother and four sons made the trip from Browning over the weekend to accompany the funeral procession that’s making its way back up to the reservation Sunday and Monday.
Once inside, some family sat, some stood, while the honor guard and other attendees stuck to the edges. The casket sat in an open space between the orange and white smokejumper planes parked in the hangar.
“It’s good to have our brother home,” Kicking Woman said as introduction for his next song, a “going home” song, before Vielle’s mother interrupted him, hugging the casket crying for her son.
He began singing and ended the short ceremony with a prayer in Blackfeet, the only English word a mention of Darryl’s name.
Then the hangar cleared of all but Vielle’s family gathered in a tight cluster in the center of the room.
Vielle’s body will return to Browning Monday in a procession that was 11 cars long leaving the hangar and was accompanied by a Missoula County Sheriff's deputy and a Forest Service law enforcement vehicle. The procession will stop overnight in St. Ignatius, where the honor guard will stand watch until morning.
The Maple Springs fire started on Nov. 4, according to InciWeb, a government website that tracks wildfire activity, and has burned over 7,700 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Command of the fire was transferred to a Type 3 incident team from a Type 1 on Saturday, according to InciWeb. Vielle’s crew dispensed, distributed and inventoried supplies at the fire camp, as well as loading trucks and maintaining the camp buildings, according to the tribe’s release.
“Throughout our history, members have stepped up in service to family, Tribe and country,” Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said in the release. “Darryl is an example of that call to service and this unfortunate turn of events does not lessen his answering the call.”