SALISBURY, N.C. -- Justin Monroe was just a boy when he first donned the bunker gear of a firefighter. He was barely more than that when he died in it.
Monroe, 19, was one of two Salisbury firefighters killed Friday as a blaze destroyed Salisbury Millwork. Victor Isler, 40, also died.
The men were among the first to enter the building and served on the same hose team. Several other firefighters were hurt trying to save them.
A June 2007 news item on the Fire Department's Web site said Monroe and Isler had joined the department within the past year.
The Observer was unable to contact relatives of Isler. But in nearby Spencer, N.C., friends and family gathered to mourn Monroe. They painted a picture of a brave young man with a sunny demeanor.
"He was a role model for young people," said Walter Ferrell, Monroe's uncle. "He was a good Christian boy, and he loved being a firefighter."
In fact, firefighting was all Monroe ever really wanted to do. Lisa Monroe said her son was just 14 when he joined the Miller's Ferry Fire Department Junior Firefighting program. From that point on, he was set on becoming a firefighter.
Monroe eventually got part-time jobs with the Salisbury and Spencer fire departments, as well as serving as a volunteer for Miller's Ferry, N.C. He was working on his fire technology degree at Central Piedmont Community College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
According to Ferrell, Monroe was an avid fisherman and hunter. He was a fun person to be around.
"He was an exceptional kid," he said. "He had a real outgoing personality. People liked him."
Monroe was a familiar face at Hendrix Barbecue. He had been going to the restaurant at least once a day for as long as anyone can remember. Sometimes with family and friends. Sometimes with other firefighters.
He always sat at a table near the window and ordered chicken. And he usually wore a fire department T-shirt, whether he was working or not.
When a firefighter stopped in Friday morning with the news that Monroe was one of the fallen, everything stopped.
"That's how important firefighters are to us," said employee Jessica Shenk, 19. "He was like a best friend to this place."