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Firefighers memorial service: On the outside

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
They lined the drive leading to Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium three or four deep Thursday afternoon.
Firefighters from across North Carolina and beyond, men and women in dress uniforms who looked as sharp as the day looked beautiful.
A command of “Attention!” echoed from one building to the next, and the firefighters snapped straight, crisp and dignified, intent on paying respects to a pair of fallen comrades.
So it was as the city of Salisbury and surrounding communities bid farewell to Victor Isler and Justin Monroe, firefighters who died in a blaze last Friday at Salisbury Millwork.
Thursday’s procession to Keppel Auditorium started near downtown, led by fire engines from Salisbury, Spencer and Miller’s Ferry, the three departments where Isler and Monroe worked.
Firefighters from across the state ó from Alamance County to Waxhaw ó were represented.
Others came from much farther away.
Mike Lavin, a captain with the Fire Department of New York, was one of several firefighters from the Big Apple who attended.
Lavin said he and a handful of his comrades were planning a trip to Savannah, Ga., when they heard of the Salisbury fire fatalities.
“We decided to detour a bit,” he said.
They left at midnight Wednesday and, along the way, picked up another firefighter in Baltimore. They made the trip, Lavin said, to pay their respects to comrades they’d never met.
The fact that Isler was once a New York City EMT and one of the first to respond to the 9-11 terrorist attacks only made Lavin and his cohorts more determined to attend Thursday’s memorial service.
“The whole country showed up for us,” Lavin said, referring to the outpouring of support following those terrorist attacks. “When we get a chance to reciprocate, we like to do that.”
In front of Keppel, finely-dressed firefighters lined one side of West Innes Street while coeds ó some dressed in shorts or blue jeans ó lined the other.
Students said most classes were canceled so they could watch the proceedings and participate if they desired.
The afternoon was warm and sunny, a day that surely had to be heaven-sent, several observers noted.
Michael Beaver and his wife, Pamela, were among the contingent that lined the road in front of Catawba. They said they’d known Monroe for years.
“I hope my kids grow up to be just like him,” Michael said. “He was always respectful, never mean to anyone.”
Michael noted that he’s disabled and walks with a cane and had to park at a Walgreens Drug Store down the street. The trek to where he was standing was a couple of hundred yards.
“It was worth it,” Michael said. “I wanted to do it for Justin.”
Leading the procession from the chapel to Rowan Memorial Park, where Monroe was buried, were members of the Red Knights, a group of firefighters and EMTs who ride big Harley-Davidsons and Hondas.
They wore leather vests and bandanas, quite a switch from their comrades, who were outfitted in dress uniforms.
Members of the Red Knights came from across North Carolina, several cycling to Rowan County from Greensboro and at least one churning up the interstate from Wilmington.
As the procession made its way to Catawba from Lyerly Funeral Home, officials blocked off the Square at the intersection of Innes and Main streets.
The procession of firetrucks and private vehicles traveled north on Main, then turned left onto West Innes.
A good crowd of downtown workers ó folks from banks, the courthouse and other local businesses ó gathered, patiently waiting for the procession to pass.
A group of firefighters from Charlotte and Gastonia parked two trucks in the westbound lanes at the Square. Ten men then stood in the intersection, saluting each vehicle in the procession as it passed.
There was silence, the only noise coming from the warm breeze, the whirring of news choppers overhead and the sound of the diesel engines idling.
Employees released three dozen white balloons in front of the Party Connection on South Main.
“We’ve done funerals before and done balloon releases,” shop owner Melanie Shorter said. “It’s a visual thing. It’s like releasing a person’s spirit. Our thoughts and prayers go with them.”
Staff writer Susan Shinn contributed to this story.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.

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