Sound that young firefighter knew well offers some comfort to grieving parents

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
When Justin Monroe came home and pushed open the door, he usually signaled his arrival by sounding a duck call.
He had 20 different ones at least. Justin carried them ó and left them lying around ó everywhere.
Loose on the dashboard of his truck. Crammed into a pants pocket. On a string around his neck.
His mother, Lisa, recently cleaned his room and found three calls under the bed.
Eddie Monroe, his father, prefers rabbit hunting and thought sometimes Justin was blowing his duck call just to irritate him. But he also recognized that calling was an art, and his son was trying to master it in time for his next hunt.
Justin would take a recorder, let loose with a round of calls, then play them back and analyze his performance.
Ducks and geese inhabit Rowan Memorial Park where 19-year-old firefighter Justin Monroe was buried March 13.
At his gravesite, Lisa Monroe noticed three birds, maybe ducks, flying close enough that it seemed as though their wings were beating against the funeral tent.
As she leaned into Eddie and right before a voice commanded, “Bagpiper, take our brother home,” the quiet was broken by the sound of one bird, one call.
As the three birds rose skyward, one peeled off by itself, like an Air Force plane saluting a lost pilot.
Lisa Monroe and others at Justin’s graveside thought it all was a sign.
“Justin always blew that duck call when he was home,” Lisa says. “It was like he was telling me he was home.
“I knew where he was, but it was a comfort to me.”Services for the fallen
The March 7 Salisbury Millwork fire has become etched into the community’s collective psyche.
Salisbury firefighters Justin Monroe and Victor Isler lost their lives in the $2 million fire that destroyed the long-established woodworking plant off South Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
The federal, state and local investigation into the fire’s cause and origin took almost a week. Over the same time period, the fire service community from across the state and New York, where Isler had previously lived and served, converged on Salisbury.
Church services remembered the fallen firefighters. Fire and emergency responders and citizens paid memorable tributes to the men as their bodies returned home one day from autopsies in Charlotte.
Salisbury’s church bells rang as the March 13 funeral procession, with each casket on the back of a fire truck, proceeded to the Catawba College chapel, then to the cemetery.
Overflow crowds of firefighters and their families filled the chapel and Keppel Auditorium to watch the service, steeped in fire service tradition.
A contingent of Salisbury officials and firefighters later accompanied the body of Victor Isler to his final resting place in New York.
Over the days, the community learned more of Justin Monroe, a young man who made firefighting a passion. Always available to fill in, he served as a part-time firefighter for the Salisbury and Spencer fire departments.
He also held a lieutenant’s position with Miller’s Ferry Volunteer Fire Department, where he was heading up the chicken and dumplings dinner planned for the day after the fire.
Story after story surfaced of this homegrown kid from Spencer, less than two years out of high school, who lived for the fire service, hunting, fishing and helping others.Parents overwhelmed
The two-plus weeks since the Salisbury Millwork fire have been a blur for Lisa and Eddie Monroe.
They’ve been overwhelmed by the love people have shown and don’t know where to start to thank people for their support.
They also have found strength in knowing that somehow the death of their son ó the only child from their marriage of 23 years ó has helped to forge bonds in the community and bring people into the church.
“I just wish it would continue,” Lisa Monroe says. “I want people to realize what firemen, EMS and police officers do and don’t forget them. Sometimes they’re unappreciated.
“I don’t want this to be lost after a couple of weeks.”
There are some things the Monroes can’t do yet.
Eddie asked Justin’s friends to move his son’s hunting bucket out of the way so it wasn’t the first thing he noticed when he drove into the driveway at their Spencer home.
Justin’s rods and reels have been relocated, too.
Friends have cleaned up and are looking after Justin’s pickup for the time being. The Monroes aren’t ready to see it at the house.
The parents have yet to read any newspapers. They’ve set them aside for now. It’s too early.
They also have shunned any television reports related to the Salisbury Millwork fire.
“It’s kind of upsetting,” Lisa says. “It’s just the fact that it’s not going to change the outcome.”
Back to a routine
Lisa plans to return to her accounting department job at Rowan Regional Medical Center Monday morning, hoping that going back to a routine will help.
The Monroes, who have leaned heavily on their faith and church family at Trading Ford Baptist, say they’re not necessarily getting strong-er every day, just not weaker.
Lisa says it may sound strange, but she found an inner peace the morning after the fire.
“I think God gave me that peace,” she says.Learning things
The line of people waiting to see the Monroes at Justin’s visitation stretched out of the Miller’s Ferry fire station, back behind the building and toward the woods, where someone said you might find one of Justin’s deer stands.
Friends, firefighters and complete strangers waited in line for four hours just to have a few seconds to speak with Justin’s parents.
Over the past couple of weeks, Lisa and Eddie Monroe learned things they never knew Justin had done.
Someone spoke of the kindness he showed a grandmother during a medical call.
Marvin Feezor recalled that Justin went out of his way to deliver some duck decoys to his son, a junior firefighter, on Christmas Eve.
A woman came to the house in Spencer with a love offering from her neighborhood. She told Lisa when one of her neighbors had to have surgery, Justin came by and walked his dog.
There also was the time Justin caught a string of trout, cleaned them, fried them and fed everyone on his church’s youth mission trip.
Small children came up to the Monroes and told them they loved Justin, who was always nice to them.
The Monroes couldn’t help but notice all the young children in the crowds lining the streets and overpasses during the day their son’s body returned from the Charlotte autopsy and in the funeral procession to the chapel March 13.
Lisa and Eddie have heard that people wanted their children to see who real heroes were, not the people glorified on television.
It gives them comfort.Last time to see him
The last time Lisa Monroe saw Justin was about 5 p.m. the Thursday before the next morning’s fire.
She met him at Miller’s Ferry Fire Department so they could go over the supplies for the chicken and dumpling dinner. They iced the chickens and counted all the lids, cups and straws.
Justin told someone later he thought his mother was obsessing about everything. Lisa simply wanted to help her son in this big undertaking.
Justin had driven to Albemarle that afternoon to pick up the chickens, which were supposed to be cooked Saturday morning.
Miller’s Ferry had a meeting at 7 that night and, as a lieutenant with the volunteer department, Justin had to attend. Always looking for more to do, he was thrilled to be appointed as head of the house and grounds committee.
Justin later reported to a shift at Salisbury’s Station No. 1 on East Innes Street at 10 p.m. and was supposed to work until 8 a.m. on March 7. He would then have an hour until his 9 a.m. shift at the Spencer Fire Department started.
But the fire call for Salisbury Millwork came in just minutes before 7 a.m., and Justin and Victor Isler, who were part of the first unit to respond that morning, perished in the fire about two hours later. Four other firefighters were injured.
Since the fire, Eddie Monroe has been haunted a bit in trying to remember the exact last time he saw Justin and what they said to each other.
His son was always in and out of the house for snatches of time before heading off to his next shift or running down to Miller’s Ferry. And that’s the way it was that particular week.
“That’s what’s been bothering me,” Eddie says. “It’s been really hurting me.”Handling details
It’s difficult to imagine that when a 19-year-old dies, his estate must be handled.
Justin’s was small. He left behind a certificate of deposit and checking and savings accounts.
Lisa Monroe can tell from the statements she has looked over how much of her son’s money went exclusively for gas and running from fire call to fire call and station to station.
His debit card account also reveals a young man on the run, eating at fast-food places close to Salisbury’s Station No. 1, such as Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell.
But as young as Justin was, as energetic and as unorganized sometimes, there also was a side to him that was mature beyond his years.
From the time Justin was young, Eddie often told his son he was the “bestest ol’ boy.”
When the Monroes met Victor Isler’s wife after the fire, they asked whether her husband had ever mentioned working with Justin. Tracy Isler knew all about their son.
Eddie will always remember her response:
“She said, ‘Oh, yes, Vic said he was a nice young man with an old man’s heart.'”Surviving a crash
It was a miracle Justin Monroe survived a two-vehicle crash on North Main Street in Salisbury when he was a senior at North Rowan High School.
Salisbury first-responders had to saw him out of his Chevy Blazer after a U-Haul truck turned into him.
Word spread quickly among the fire service and EMS community that one of their own was in the crash, and Lisa Monroe rode in the ambulance with her son to Rowan Regional Medical Center.
At first, a distressed Justin kept repeating to his mom, “Don’t let me die.” In turn, Lisa pleaded with God, “Please don’t take my son.”
But Lisa says a calm came over her son at an intersection near the hospital, and he said, “It’s not my time to go.”
Airlifted out of Rowan County, Justin spent 23 hours at a Charlotte hospital, came home and mended quickly.
Eddie says his son rededicated himself to being a firefighter and helping others after the wreck. He and Lisa believe it offered Justin two more years to serve, that he gave his life in helping others and that God is using Justin’s sacrifice as a way to bring a lot of changes into people’s lives.
“You just don’t know what God’s plan is,” Eddie says. Knowing the risks
Lisa and Eddie Monroe say their son knew what the risks were in being a firefighter.
Eddie acknowledges that as young as Justin was, it might have entered his mind that his son would be overly aggressive.
But he thinks of all the training, certifications and hours of fire science study Justin had logged since he was a junior firefighter at 14. A captain also told Eddie that Justin, through his efforts, probably had as much experience and knowledge as some of the older firefighters.
“He just didn’t go rushing into a fire,” Eddie says.
The Monroes also refuse to think of all the what-ifs.
Even if the Salisbury Millwork fire had happened later that morning, Justin would have been working at the Spencer station. He would have ended up at the fire, Eddie says.To the scene of fire
The couple visited Salisbury Millwork the Monday morning after the fire.
Some Salisbury Police officers ó one had been at Justin’s car wreck two years earlier ó met them and walked the Monroes along the edges of the site.
They noticed some stakes inside the charred, ruined plant marking spots where their son’s and Victor Isler’s hose team got in trouble the morning of the fire.
“I’ve got to believe, right now, that God took him and did not make him suffer,” Eddie says. “That’s all that matters to me.”
Lisa holds to the same thought.
“When two people are doing something like that, they’re serving,” she says, “and I feel like God would not let them suffer.”Still listening
Lisa keeps looking for some custom reeds and calls that Justin ordered and should be coming in the mail soon.
Whenever she walks outside these days, it seems everything in nature sounds louder ó a crow, a hawk. She thinks she keeps hearing ducks.
“Every time I hear a siren, I almost run outside,” she says. “I heard one the other night. I was so used to taking him from an early age to chase down fire trucks.”
Since the fire, Lisa longs to be with firemen, and she visits them at the various stations.
Eddie says when his wife heard that a fireman was struck by a car the other day, she took off for the hospital to see how he was.
“I guess I want to mother someone now,” Lisa says.
Lisa and Eddie Monroe have talked to their son a lot since his death.
Mostly in prayer.
Lisa sat beside his grave for an hour last Sunday and spoke out loud.
“The only thing I could say was, ‘Lord, wrap your arms around him and tell him I love him,'” Lisa says.
During the entire hour, Lisa adds, she never heard the sound of a duck, which pleased her.
She already had heard the one reassuring call that confirmed Justin was home.
It remains a comfort to her.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or