SALISBURY — A couple of weeks after the Salisbury Millwork Co. fire in 2008, photographer Jon Lakey and I sat down in the living room of Eddie and Lisa Monroe.
I won't forget that day and will forever appreciate how gracious the Monroes were. In the fire, they had lost their 19-year-old son, Justin.
Lisa talked about how Justin would push through the door of their home in Spencer and announce his arrival by sounding a duck call. Hunting was Justin's passion; duck calls, an obsession.
Not long after his death, when she was tidying up his room, Lisa Monroe found three duck calls under Justin's bed.
Eddie Monroe told us how hard it was to see other things, such as Justin's hunting bucket out on the porch, or his rods and reels for fishing. Eddie had asked Justin's friends to move them out of sight.
Friends also were taking care of Justin's pick-up truck in those early days after the fire. The Monroes just couldn't bear to see it.
The couple hadn't looked at any newspapers since the fire and shunned television reports related to it.
For them, reading or hearing about it wasn't going to change the fact their son and fellow Salisbury firefighter Vic Isler Sr. died that day, March 7, 2008.
Something haunted him, Eddie confided back then. He couldn't remember exactly the last time he had seen and spoken with Justin, who was constantly bustling in and out of their house.
“It's been really hurting me,” Eddie said.
As she has for five years, Lisa Monroe attended the ceremony Thursday morning marking an anniversary of the fire. It was the first time she was there without Eddie, who died last year.
“We always struggled around this date,” Lisa Monroe said Thursday. “Last week, I was fine. This week, I'm more tearful.”
She blamed herself a little bit, acknowledging how she has been looking at old photographs.
Lisa Monroe said she stays on an emotional roller coaster because every year holds strong reminders. Justin's birthday was in July. Then there's the Christmas holiday, of course.
Every March, the fire's anniversary rolls around.
“I don't know that it will get any easier,” Monroe said. “It's like a sore that heals just a little bit, then the scab comes off.”
One thing she finds comfort in since Eddie's passing is, “I know they're together.”
“We hope there's a pond, duck hunting and fishing in heaven, because that's where (they) would be,” Lisa said.
It's hard to believe it has been five years since the deaths of Justin Monroe and Vic Isler Sr. enveloped the city in grief. It also upset the worlds of the 35 Salisbury Millwork employees, who watched the same fire consume their livelihoods.
In face of the tragedy, no gestures seemed adequate, though we tried.
People placed flowers at the Firemen's Memorial in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, the entrance to Salisbury Millwork and at the Central Fire Station on East Innes Street.
Red ribbons became a symbol for the loss, and people tied them to their car antennas or rear-view mirrors. They also attached ribbons to their clothing.
Trains going through Salisbury the day of the fire let loose with mournful, measured sounds from their whistles. Flags were lowered to half-staff everywhere — government buildings, car dealerships and parks.
The fire service community from across the state and parts of New York, where Isler was from, converged on Salisbury. We saw firsthand how strong the firemen's fraternity is.
Church services remembered Isler and Monroe. It's hard to forget how people lined the streets one day, waiting for the escort returning the men's bodies from their autopsies in Charlotte.
People flooded the streets again during the memorial procession to Catawba College's chapel, with the caskets being carried on the back of fire trucks.
A Salisbury contingent later accompanied Isler's body to its final resting place in New York, and the families and Fire Department personnel attended an autumn ceremony for both men at the National Fallen Firefighters' Memorial in Emmitsburg, Pa.
The $2 million fire had other stories. Capt. Rick Barkley was burned and had to be treated at a Winston-Salem hospital. Three members of Locke Fire Department also suffered burns or injuries that day, but they were not serious.
An alphabet's soup of investigative teams studied the fire. There were press conferences, special reports and recommendations.
The Occupational Safety and Heath Division of the N.C. Department of Labor found “serious” violations, leading to $6,563 in penalties against the city. The violations related to equipment, communications and procedures followed during the fire.
It meant training changes and the city's purchase of better front-line radios.
And every year, the Salisbury Fire Department holds this memorial service to remember Isler and Monroe.
Dan Peters, a chaplain for the department, started Thursday's service off with a Biblical verse, from James 4:14. It reminds us how short life is for all of us:
“For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”
Mark Monroe, Justin Monroe's older brother, said Thursday, he appreciated greatly how the fallen firefighters and the day are remembered.
He acknowledged, too, how difficult it is to go through it all again. But that's the way it will always be.
A red ribbon. A flag at half-staff. A duck call. You never know what will take you back.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.