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Firefighters, other responders, community leaders remember Justin, Vic

By Shavonne Walker

shavonne.walker@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Nine years ago, one of the worst tragedies the Salisbury firefighting community has seen happened at 1820 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. It was the day the city Fire Department lost two of its own, 19-year-old Justin Monroe and 40-year-old Victor Isler, in a fire at Salisbury Millwork.

Justin Monroe, who had always wanted to be a firefighter, and Vic Isler, a native of New York, were remembered Tuesday at a memorial service at the Salisbury-Rowan Firefighters Memorial in Chestnut Hill Cemetery.

A fire wall collapsed around the two men as they battled the five-alarm fire at the woodworking company. A third firefighter, Capt. Rick Barkley, was seriously burned.

The trapped firemen were rescued by a rapid intervention team. Locke firefighters Bradley McKnight, James Hall and Chief Rusty Alexander also were injured while responding.

The fire began in the basement, spread to offices above, and later to the roof and throughout the rest of the building. Fire departments from nearly every part of the county and beyond responded.

The fire led to fines and later recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the N.C. Department of Labor, which also brought changes to equipment, communications and training.

Chaplain James Cook was working at Novant Health Rowan Regional Medical Center, then Rowan Regional Medical Center, the day of the fire. He recounted what is was like in the emergency room.

Many of the nurses and ER staff had spouses who were firefighters.

“You could see the fear on their face as the call rang out,” Cook said.

You could smell the smoke, he said. He remembered making calls to family members and seeing the mournful looks on fire chiefs’ faces.

“Nine years later, we still remember,” Cook said.

“Firemen, police, EMS, nurses, doctors, chaplains — these kinds of events are etched in our minds and in our hearts. They don’t always go away. Those sights, the sounds, the smells, they are triggers that we have and the work that we do that remind us of the dangers of what we do, what you do,” Cook said.

He said the work that emergency responders, firefighters and police do is “a calling” because it’s difficult work.

“It takes bravery, it takes courage and it takes a heart,” Cook said.

Fire chaplains Glenn Young and Alton Speight offered up prayers before people gathered for the memorial servce.

At the close of the brief service, firefighters placed wreaths bearing the names of Isler and Monroe on the memorial grounds. The wreaths held red, white and blue flowers and a ribbon of the same colors.

Firefighter Josh Martin carried and then adjusted a wreath with Victor Isler’s name on a black sash. Martin was not a Salisbury firefighter when the two men died, but nonetheless he feels the importance of such a remembrance service.

“It’s a reminder of the realization of what we do. Something like this doesn’t happen often, but it’s a reminder that this is a dangerous job. But we love what we do,” Martin said.

He said firefighters don’t look at themselves as heroes. They know they are community servants. Martin said each emergency call gets the same care whether it’s a response to a sprained ankle or a serious car crash.

Capt. Mike McNeil, who was helping battle the fire that day but has since moved to a fire department in Kernersville, likely summed up why the room was filled with people nine years later.

“I do it to honor them,” McNeil said.

He said it doesn’t get any easier as the years go on, but firefighting is what they all do.

The families of Justin Monroe and Vic Isler were not at this year’s service. Family members have said it continues to be difficult to attend.

Other responders including EMS, rescue squad and law enforcement personnel as well as city leaders attended the service.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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