By Mark Wineka
Sirs, your tour is fulfilled.
Thousands of people ó led by a strong brotherhood of firefighters ó said their goodbyes Thursday to Justin Monroe and Victor Isler during a tearful day that left just as many strengthened by a coming together the community has rarely seen.
“God suffers with us,” the Rev. Jon Putnam said. “Our tears are God’s tears also.”
Monroe, 19, and Isler, 40, the city firefighters who died in last Friday’s Salisbury Millwork fire, had a combined funeral service Thursday afternoon at Catawba College’s Omwake-Dearborne Chapel.
“They were brothers to the end,” Isler’s sister Linda Lorenzo said, “and they will be brothers in heaven.”
The six days since their deaths as members of the same hose team often stretched like an eternity.
So much happened between the moment last Friday morning when a Salisbury Millwork employee arrived at work and noticed smoke coming from the office basement and Thursday when a bell draped in black rang five times to signal “assignment complete” for two firefighters.
While it was six days the community won’t soon forget, speakers Thursday asked the men’s families, friends and colleagues to cherish instead the memories they will always have of Monroe and Isler.
Jonathan McCaskill, a firefighter friend of Monroe, said he will miss his buddy’s smile the most or, better put, “his inability not to (smile).”
Isler’s sister-in-law said he would never have allowed anyone to call him a hero “for doing the job he loved.” His sister, Laura Langdon, said if it hadn’t been for Vic, she wouldn’t have met her husband.
“He was always there for us,” she said.
Emotional testimonies flooded from the speakers into the chapel during a service that took close to two hours and included song, scripture, ceremony and eulogies.
Overall, the service and day as a whole had moments that choked words in the throat:
– Salisbury’s church bells rang at 2 p.m. as the flag-draped coffins, being transported on the back of firetrucks, made the slow trip to the college chapel.
People lined the streets along the way, holding signs, flags and hands over their hearts.
– A solemn sea of firefighters and emergency personnel filled the lawn in front of the chapel to stand at attention as pallbearers brought out the caskets.
They saluted as the coffins were lifted onto the firetrucks that would take them to the cemetery ó each one escorted by nine firefighters riding in the back.
– Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell stepped up to Isler’s son, Anthony, in the front pew and placed his father’s framed badge and patch in the teen’s hands. He gave Tracy Isler her husband’s fire helmet, leaning in to hug her and speak in her ear.
Lisa Monroe, Justin’s mother, received her son’s badge and patch, while his father, Eddie, accepted his helmet.
A slow, white-gloved salute followed each exchange.
– A Concord Fire Department honor guard and an officer playing bagpipes led firefighters and family members into the chapel behind the two caskets. Monroe’s casket went to the right of the firemen’s bell draped in black, Isler’s to the left.
– People in the college’s nearby Keppel Auditorium, where they could watch a live feed, participated in the service as if they were in the chapel, rising to sing “Amazing Grace” and wiping away tears during “The Fireman’s Prayer.”
– A long escort of fire apparatus accompanied the funeral procession to Rowan Memorial Park.
Roughly 1,200 people crowded into the chapel. Firefighters from other jurisdictions across the state stood two-deep for the length of the service along both sides of the sanctuary.
Family members of the fallen firefighters filled seven pews in the front.
Sadly, for most of the people in Isler’s family, it was their first trip to North Carolina since Isler had moved to the South.
The Salisbury, Spencer and Miller’s Ferry departments ó the energetic Monroe served with all of them ó sat together in groups, as did full delegations from other Rowan County fire departments, Rowan Regional Medical Center personnel, ATF agents, emergency services workers and Salisbury City Council.
Cavernous Keppel Auditorium seemed too big for the 200 to 300 people who first congregated there to watch the funeral on the big screen. But when the service was about to begin, firefighters and other officers streamed into the auditorium and filled nearly every seat.
Isler’s sister-in-law said it seemed as though the entire states of North Carolina and New York opened their hearts to the family.
A Brooklyn native, Isler will be buried later in Long Island, N.Y., where he spent much of his life before moving south and joining the Salisbury Fire Department last June.
He moved here to make a better life for his wife and family, sister Linda Lorenzo said, and fulfill his life’s dream of being a full-time firefighter ó a job for which he was too old in New York.
“This was his life,” his sister Langdon said. “Even though he’s gone, this is what he wanted to do.”
Before he had a license to drive as a teen, Langdon recalled, she used to drive him to fire calls of a volunteer fire department.
Isler was a former medic with FDNY and served at Ground Zero after the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center.
His family described Isler’s great sense of humor and his pride, honor and sincerity.
Many of the stories told about Monroe dealt with his love for hunting and fishing.
Former Miller’s Ferry Fire Chief Greg Shue recalled a time when Monroe agreed to accompany him, his wife and children (9 and 13) on a fishing trip.
Lines were forever getting caught, and Monroe spent the whole day tying on jigs for Shue’s wife and kids, Shue said. He never got to bait a hook of his own.
“He said he didn’t want to fish anyhow,” Shue said.
Monroe “grinned from ear to ear” when he landed his part-time firefighting job with Salisbury, Shue said.
He also was pursuing a fire science degree from Central Piedmont Community College and working as a volunteer for the Spencer and Miller’s Ferry fire departments.
Salisbury firefighter Terry Smith said Lisa Monroe told him her son was always broke from putting gas in his vehicle to get to all the places he had to be.
“I watched proudly as he became a true professional,” Smith said, describing how he saw Monroe grow from the 6-year-old ring bearer at his wedding, to a junior firefighter at 14, to a Salisbury firefighter.
A certified Emergency Medical Technician, the young Monroe often was the first person to a call. He even delivered a baby once.
He especially became dedicated to the fire service when he was 17 and survived a terrible vehicle crash on North Main Street. Ironically, Salisbury firefighters extricated him from that wreck.
No one realized it at the time, people have said, but God decided to give him two more years to help others.
McCaskill said Monroe’s grin often was an easy giveaway that he was up to something.
He recalled how they arrived for a hunting trip one evening, not long before sunset. But Monroe couldn’t wait until the next morning.
In the distance, McCaskill soon heard shots, and later, he found Monroe standing at the back of his truck with three ducks on the tailgate.
Of course, he was smiling.
“How could you get mad at someone with so much pride?” McCaskill asked.
Events such as the firefighters’ deaths test people’s faith, Putnam said in his message. But it’s also in these times, he said, that they must stick close to the Lord because He has not abandoned them.
“He can bring new life out of the darkest gloom,” Putnam said.
The Sacred Heart priest asked his chapel audience to think of what had happened in the community since the men’s deaths ó the flags, the ribbons, hands over hearts, the reaching out.
All of the community gestures, big and small, show the face of God, Putnam said.
The Rev. Mike Motley, pastor of Trading Ford Baptist Church, where the Monroes attend, said he was overwhelmed Monday to have seen every overpass along Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Salisbury being manned by saluting firefighters as the bodies of Monroe and Isler returned home from autopsies.
Motley recalled a youth mission trip to Cherokee, during which Monroe “fed the multitudes.” He caught enough trout to cover the entire youth group and counselors.
To find true comfort in a time of great loss, Motley said, Christians have to remember that God cares and loves.
“We are not alone through this,” he said.
Elizabeth Cook contributed to this story. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mark Wineka