Shock still lingers
By Mark Wineka
A federally led investigative team conducted interviews of firemen and Salisbury Millwork employees Saturday as part of its first full day of looking into the cause of a fire and the circumstances that led to the deaths of two firefighters Friday.
Meanwhile, a vast firefighting fraternity and the community at large rallied behind the Salisbury Fire Department and the victims’ families.
Saturday afternoon, vehicles from Salisbury Police and Salisbury and Miller’s Ferry fire departments escorted the bodies of 40-year-old Victor Isler of Harrisburg and 19-year-old Justin Monroe of Spencer from Rowan Regional Medical Center to Carolinas Medical Center for autopsies.
Fire and emergency equipment from local departments between Salisbury and Charlotte manned every overpass along Interstate 85 during the trip.
As the procession left Salisbury, the medical examiner’s car carrying Isler and Monroe stopped momentarily in front of Station 51 ó the central fire station ó where firefighters from across the region lined both sides of East Innes Street and placed their hands over their hearts.
“We don’t let them go alone,” Salisbury Police Chief Bob Parnell said of the escort.
A Salisbury firefighter injured in Friday’s fire, Capt. Rick Barkley, has been released from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and is recuperating at home, officials said.
He suffered first- and second-degree burns to his back and extremities.
Other fire departments from inside and outside Rowan County have taken over the fire coverage for Salisbury at the city’s four stations. Parnell said the departments will offer that help at least until Tuesday, “or as long as it takes.”
Mayor Susan Kluttz said the “appropriate level of public safety response from all agencies has been reassuring.”
“I wish I could thank these men and women of emergency services personally who are stepping up in our time of need,” she said.
Miller’s Ferry Volunteer Fire Department, where Monroe had started as a junior firefighter, also is receiving rotating coverage from other departments such as East Spencer, Churchland, Tyro and Liberty.
“They lost one, too,” Parnell said.
Tributes for the men
The outside coverage continues to give members of both departments the chance to focus on the men it lost, the families they left behind and their own grief.
During a press conference Saturday afternoon, six of the men’s firefighting comrades gave touching tributes and, with Parnell, sometimes choked back emotions.
Parnell singled out Capt. Buddy Miller, “who found his lost firefighter brother at great peril to himself.”
It was Miller who risked his life Friday to find and bring Isler out of the fire at Salisbury Millwork. And after doing so, he strapped on a fresh air pack and was ready to look for Monroe before the intense fire made an immediate rescue impossible.
“A hero’s gone,” Miller said of his friend Isler, “and I’m still here.”
A low afternoon sun poured into the main fire station’s four front bays as the men spoke of their friends. A group of about 40 firefighters stood in support behind them.
Parnell said fire departments from the entire region are supporting the Salisbury men and women in whatever they need.
“In that, I am so proud,” he added.
Because the visiting firefighters are unfamiliar with the city, Salisbury Police officers are assisting in guiding them to calls from all the stations.
Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm said his officers also were helping conduct interviews Saturday connected to the fire investigation.
Salisbury Police and Fire departments requested that the National Response Team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with special agents from the Charlotte Field Division, help with determining the cause of the fire and/or any explosions.
According to the ATF, the National Response Team has brought expertise and state-of-the-art equipment to the investigation of major fire and explosives incidents since 1978.
The team normally has 18 members, including veteran special agents who have post-blast and fire origin-and-cause expertise; forensic chemists; explosives enforcement officers; fire protection engineers; accelerant detection canines; explosives detection canines; and intelligence, computer forensic and audit support.
A National Response Team’s Explosives and Fire Investigation Unit was on the fire scene Saturday.
ATF reconstructs the scene, identifying the blast area or the origin of a fire, conducts interviews and sifts through debris to obtain evidence.
Firefighters and witnesses on the scene Friday spoke of hearing explosions.
The State Bureau of Investigation, the local fire and police departments and the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office are assisting.
The ATF said this is the third National Response Team activation in North and South Carolina over the past year.
Others were in Spruce Pine and Charleston, S.C., in 2007.
Randy Biggs, a Charlotte field officer for ATF, said finding answers in the Salisbury case is “the No. 1 priority” for his division.
Fire Department spokes-person Chris Kepley said some 75 people are involved in trying to sort things out about the fire that left the office/showroom and production departments of Salisbury Millwork ó founded as Salisbury Lumber and Supply in 1947 ó in ruins.
Zebedee T. Graham, special agent in charge of the ATF Charlotte Field Division, said in a press release that early estimates of damages are in excess of $2 million.
The fire left 35 people out of work.
On the fire site Saturday morning, the millworking and casework departments were reduced to mangled metal and piles of brick. Company warehouses and a water tower to the south have survived. Dust collectors are still standing in the middle of the rubble.
Somehow, a pair of trailers that were backed up to loading docks escaped the fire, though the building that was behind them is gone.
Wisps of smoke still rose from the charred remains Saturday morning. ATF and SBI agents and a handful of firemen roamed the grounds, sectioned off by police tape.
Remnants from the day and night of fighting the fire remained, such as cases of water, soft drinks and coffee; coolers; tents; light towers and a few limp, unconnected hoses.
Tom Goodman, one of Salisbury Millwork’s three owners (with his brother and sister), drove up to the site about midday. The scene reminded him of the company’s fire in 1959.
Only 15 then, he recalled seeing his father, R.V. Goodman, rush from home about the same time in the morning as Friday’s 7 a.m. fire. Tom Goodman later rode his bicycle to the plant from the family’s Maupin Avenue home and watched the fire consume his dad’s plant.
“This was what he was faced with,” Goodman said, looking at what Friday’s fire had left. “… I hope we’re really able to do the right thing for the employees.”
Lewis Mowery, an employee at the plant since 1987, drove up a short time after Goodman had left.
He had watched the fire march through the plant from when he arrived for work until it was a leveled mess at 2:30 p.m.
“We were told they thought they had it under control, and 15 minutes later I was watching it all go up in smoke,” Mowery said. “It’s pretty tough when you have that much time invested in one place.”
The SBI interviewed Mowery at the Park Avenue Community Center earlier Saturday morning.
Mowery said he told the interviewers that he couldn’t tell them anything about the fire except that employees had nothing to do with it. He doesn’t know anybody who wouldn’t be gung-ho to work at Salisbury Millwork again, Mowery said.
“But I just hate that two people lost their lives,” he said. “That was tough.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.