‘He was a real good guy’: Dozens gather to honor fallen Burke County firefighter

BURKE COUNTY, N.C. — First responders in Burke County gathered Friday to remember a beloved volunteer firefighter.

Crews from multiple departments joined a procession of fire trucks that traveled down Interstate 40 from Winston Salem to Morganton after the death of firefighter James Hensley.

Hensley was a volunteer at the Brendletown Fire Department south of Morganton. He first started back in the mid 1990′s.

“There wasn’t a guy in the department that had a bigger heart than James,” Brendletown Fire Chief Steve Johnson said. “He was a real good guy”

Before the procession, firefighters gathered at the station for a prayer to honor the work he did for the community and the department.

“He was always there when we needed him,” Lt. Ray Thomas with the Brendletown Fire Department said. “He knew what to do when he showed up. He was just a great guy. He’d give the shirt off his back if you needed it. "

The fire chief told Channel 9 that on Tuesday evening, Hensley and his fellow firefighters participated in a training exercise where they went over how to use equipment, including checking breathing apparatus. The next day, firefighters said they scrambled to get to Hensley’s home after getting a call for help from a family member.

“I kept telling myself it’s not him,” Thomas said. “It’s not James. It’s somebody else. But when we got in there it was.”

Hensley was later pronounced dead, but it’s still unclear what led to his death.

Firefighters at the department are hoping that Hensley’s death falls under the state guidelines of “in the line of duty”. The designation would provide more financial assistance to his family. Hensley, who was 50-years old, leaves behind four children including a son who also volunteers at the department.

“We have come to understand that there are line of duty deaths … events that may not happen as a result of a tragic event,” Fire Captain Dana McKim said.

One of the stipulations for an “in the line of duty death” is that it happens within 24 hours of a call or training. Certain types of cancer cases are also now being evaluated and designated “in the line of duty.”

The fire marshal said it takes months for the state to sometimes make a decision in a case like this.

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