Newsmakers of the year: Fallen firefighters will never be forgotten

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
When Mayor Susan Kluttz talks to third-graders during their field trips downtown, she sees a deeper appreciation among them for what firefighters, law enforcement and emergency personnel do for the community.
It’s all because of Victor Isler Sr. and Justin Monroe.
From all corners of Rowan County, Kluttz says, the children know about Isler and Monroe, the firefighters who lost their lives in the March 7 fire at Salisbury Millwork.
Not long after the fire, Kluttz walked into a second-grade class at Koontz Elementary School and asked the children whether they knew why she was wearing a red ribbon, the symbol worn by hundreds to honor Isler and Monroe.
Hands shot up around the room, and the children began telling her about the men and how they had cried and prayed with their families for them.
“We look at these two firefighters as heroes, as our own local heroes,” Kluttz says. “It has helped children to understand service and giving back, which is the greatest thing in life.”
Isler, 40, and Monroe, 19, put faces on public service for the children.
In a world where often the message to children is grow up and make a lot of money, Kluttz says, Isler and Monroe offered a different perspective ó what it truly means to be public servants and doing for others.
“It was one of the darkest days in Salisbury’s history and always will be,” Kluttz says of the losses March 7. “For the families, the Fire Department and the community, the loss was just so horrible.
“But sometimes you do see good that comes from bad, and I saw that, dealing with the community every day.”
Supported by an overwhelming sentiment among readers, the Salisbury Post’s editorial board has chosen Victor Isler Sr. and Justin Monroe as its 2008 Newsmakers of the Year.
“We’re never going to forget Justin and Vic and the contributions they made,” Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell says.
The men, along with Capt. Rick Barkley, were in the woodworking plant’s shipping area and thought to be protected by firewalls when they were caught in a flashover that filled their section with dense smoke and fire.
The conditions overwhelmed and separated the firefighters, while heroic efforts were made to save them. In the end, a rescue team from Locke Volunteer Fire Department pulled Barkley to safety, and Capt. Baxter “Buddy” Miller located Isler, who could not be revived on the way to the hospital.
A team later recovered Monroe’s body.
The $2 million fire destroyed Salisbury Millwork’s office, shipping and manufacturing facilities.
In the week that followed March 7, the fire service community from across the state and New York, where Isler previously had served, converged on Salisbury.
Pastors spoke of the fallen firefighters in their sermons. Citizens paid memorable tributes to the men, lining the streets and highways as their bodies were transported to and from Charlotte for autopsies and during the March 13 funeral procession through town.
Every church bell in Salisbury rang out in their honor as their caskets moved toward the Catawba College chapel.
“So many people seemed to be touched personally,” Kluttz says. “I was never prouder of our community and how people reacted to this, honored them and had events for them.”
Over the remaining months of 2008, concerts, blood drives, oyster roasts, golf tournaments and general fundraisers were held as tributes to Isler and Monroe.
Memorial funds and scholarships were established. People wore bracelets and ribbons in their memory. Businesses made generous donations to the local fire service.
Spencer dedicated its new fire truck to Monroe, and he received a posthumous fire science degree from Central Piedmont Community College.
The “NASCAR Angels” television show surprised Isler’s son, 15-year-old Vic Jr., with a $30,000 makeover of the 1977 Corvette that the firefighter had planned to restore with his son.
The Salisbury Rotary Club honored Isler and Monroe as “Firefighters of the Year.”
“I think a positive was it did bring the community together,” Justin’s mother, Lisa Monroe says. People realized, she adds, “that they do put their lives on the line.”
“You never know when they are called … it can turn out to be something as tragic as that was,” she says.
Both Isler and Monroe made firefighting their passion. Isler had rededicated himself to the profession after serving as a fireman on Long Island and as a medic with the Fire Department of New York.
Isler decided he wanted to be a full-time firefighter but was beyond the FDNY’s age limit of 39, so he moved to North Carolina, joined the Salisbury Fire Department and attended rookie school at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
As a 40-year-old, Isler won the school’s Top Gun Award for his leadership, techniques and ability, prompting Fire Chief Parnell to say he was destined to be a leader.
Monroe was an energetic young man who always seemed available to fill in. He served as a part-time firefighter for the Salisbury and Spencer departments and was a lieutenant for Miller’s Ferry Volunteer Fire Department. All the while, he was closing in on his fire science degree from CPCC.
Monroe lived for the fire service, hunting, fishing and helping others.
“I think of him constantly,” his mother says of Justin, who was heading up Miller’s Ferry chicken and dumpling dinner scheduled for the day after the fire. “For me, it’s amazing for a 19-year-old person, how many people he knew and lives he touched.”
She still receives cards and letters from folks thinking about Justin, the family and firefighters.
The March 7 fire had some other repercussions. The fire and all the expenses associated with it cost the city more than $160,000. In August, the state Occupational Safety and Health Division levied $6,563 in fines for workplace violations it documented during the fire.
This fall, Salisbury City Council authorized the $107,316 purchase of front-line radios ó 66 “rugged” portable radios that will replace models that, in some instances March 7, did not work properly amid the fire, smoke and water conditions.
The state OSH division, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and a city-appointed, four-member have done or are doing intensive studies of the incident and the Fire Department overall.
The department did a lot of things right March 7, according to reports that have been completed. Salisbury Fire has always emphasized safety, training, equipment and communications, according to Parnell.
But Parnell is hesitant to say anything positive came from the loss of Isler and Monroe. “We had a terrible, terrible tragedy, an unforeseen accident,” he says. “How do you make that a positive?”
The men and women in his department have always been strong and close-knit, Parnell says. They appreciate the outpouring of support from the community and how it pulled together from the moment Isler and Monroe were lost.
“We had that support before the fire, too,” Parnell says. “We’ve never felt the lack of support.”
When school field trips come in these days, Parnell also notices a special appreciation among kids for the commitment firefighters are making every day. “They’re always respectful,” he says. “Every class is in awe of what we do, and we try to be good role models.”
Lisa Monroe still replays in her thoughts the children who lined the streets in those days after the fire, holding up signs in memory of Isler and her son and expressing support for their comrades.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” she says.