By Emily Ford
Already a junior firefighter at age 17 when he nearly died in a car accident, Justin Monroe became even more determined to help people in danger.
“After the wreck, he wanted it even more,” said Amanda Cerda, Monroe’s friend and a waitress at his favorite restaurant, Hendrix Barbecue in Spencer.
Firefighting was Monroe’s passion due to “the simple fact that he could help somebody,” Cerda said.
But no one could help Monroe when he became trapped Friday in the inferno at Salisbury Millwork after a series of unexplained explosions.
Just 19, he died at the scene. The investigation continues.
Monroe’s comrade at the Salisbury Fire Department, Victor Isler, 40, also perished. The two shared a hose as they fought the fierce flames.
Calm and rather shy, Monroe served in three fire departments. The North Rowan High School graduate worked part-time for both Salisbury and Spencer. On his days off, he served as a volunteer firefighter for Miller’s Ferry.
He also was a certified emergency medical technician and regularly responded to more calls than almost any other EMT.
He recently delivered his first baby.
“He had a servant’s heart,” said family friend Scott Gobble, who gathered with others Saturday at Hendrix.
Monroe joined the junior firefighter program at Miller’s Ferry at age 14 and almost immediately won Junior Firefighter of the Year, awarded by his peers.
“He was not real big, but he had a real big smile,” Miller’s Ferry Fire Chief Bobby Fox said.
Monroe had applied to the Spencer Fire Department when he was a sophomore in high school.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Chief Jay Baker said.
The department, which only takes applicants 18 and older, had to turn him away.
Monroe went on to fight fires for Miller’s Ferry. But last year, when he turned 18, Spencer had an opening for a part-time firefighter.
“Guess whose application was the first one I got?” Baker said. “Justin’s.”
A second home
Hendrix is like a second home to the Monroe family, who live just north of the restaurant on Salisbury Avenue. Justin Monroe ate there every day, sometimes twice, and his father, Eddie, was at the restaurant Friday when he got the call about his son.
When news broke about the deaths, all business in the restaurant stopped for several minutes.
“It was so quiet in here, you could hear a pin drop,” waitress Susie Ingram said.
Saturday, Ingram and other employees wore black ribbons with small silver crosses designed by Jessica Lyons, and the sign outside the restaurant read, “We love and miss you Justin.”
When a news update flashed across the TV, several employees and patrons broke down in tears.
An avid hunter, Monroe sometimes came to the restaurant dressed in camouflage and face paint. He also loved to fish and often threw his catch back.
He wanted to learn taxidermy and offered to sew up an old mink coat riddled with holes given to family friend Lesa Gobble.
He worked and worked but finally threw it down in frustration, Gobble said. However, he knew Gobble wanted to wear the coat and last week tried again to repair it.
“He was one of the nicest people you would ever meet,” Gobble said.
On Saturday, the day after he died, Monroe was supposed to be running the annual chicken and dumpling fundraiser at Miller’s Ferry Fire Department. The young firefighter was in charge of the event this year and had spent many hours preparing for it.
Instead, firefighters canceled the sale and gave the chickens to Rowan Helping Ministries.
As a boy, Monroe acted “like a little man” and talked incessantly about becoming a firefighter, said family friend Sherry Morgan.
Morgan and others gathered Saturday at Miller’s Ferry to remember Monroe.
A memorial inside the station included photos, flowers, balloons and the football he tossed around with junior firefighters, who looked up to him.
It also featured a broken battery, the only remaining piece of a radio that Monroe broke a few weeks ago.
It was the fourth radio he had broken. Or maybe the fifth. Firefighters shook their heads and said it was hard to keep count.
“We called him ‘Radioman,’ ” firefighter Ken Womble said with a laugh.
Salisbury firefighters handed out red ribbons Saturday afternoon in memory of Monroe and Isler and asked people to wear them or tie them to a car antennae.
Monroe had two additional years to help people after his near-fatal car accident in 2005, family friend Scott Gobble said.
“He done cheated death one time,” Gobble said.
Not this time.
“He will be greatly missed,” said Greg Shue, former fire chief at Miller’s Ferry. “His assignment is complete.”
Contact Emily Ford at 704-797-4264 or email@example.com.
By Emily Ford