BURKE COUNTY, N.C. - Family members, friends and an entire community are grieving after a Triple Community Fire Department firefighter was hit and killed by a pickup truck while clearing storm debris in Drexel.
On October 8, Department officials said that two firefighters were clearing debris from the roadway on Highway 70 when a pickup truck driven by Randall Stewart traveling eastbound struck firefighter Jason Hensley, 40, just before midnight.
Hensley was killed on impact.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol spent hours Monday morning reconstructing the accident to determine how fast Stewart was going.
"He should have seen the lights and the visibility is probably a thousand feet there's no reason he shouldn't have been able to get stopped," NC Highway Patrolman Daniel Lane said.
Stewart appeared in court on October 11, where he asked for a court-appointed attorney. He is charged with felony death by motor vehicle and driving while impaired.
The judge reviewed Stewart’s list of charges and tripled his bond to $75,000. Stewart didn’t show any reaction to the judge’s decision.
Matthew Franklin, a volunteer firefighter from the Triple Community Fire Department, spoke with Channel 9 in the courtroom about the ruling.
"It gives us more hope, and he'll have more time to think about what he has done to this community, to us and to the family," Franklin said.
North Carolina Highway Patrol officials said they’re currently waiting for Stewart’s blood test results from the night of the accident.
Stewart is scheduled to be back in court for a probable cause hearing on Nov. 1.
A procession for Hensley left Morganton at 10 a.m. on October 10 for Winston-Salem, and arrived in Valdese around 1 p.m. before heading back to Burke County.
Channel 9 saw firefighters from just about every department in Burke County showing support for their fallen brother and more than two dozen firetrucks headed to Winston-Salem.
Fire trucks lined overpasses as the procession moved through the 100-mile stretch.
"Community support is important to all these guys,” Mike Stiles, with the Chesterfield Fire Department, said. “It's not just family, but community support that keeps us going."
Citizens and emergency crews saluted the fallen firefighter.
"It doesn't matter who you are, if you're a firefighter or rescue, you're family and we all stick together,” Lake James resident Jimmy Vance said.
The night of his death, firefighters said, Hensley was wearing his turnout gear and a safety vest, and the emergency lights on his vehicle, along with those on another truck and a patrol car, were all on when the collision happened.
An investigation conducted by the North Carolina Highway Patrol found that Stewart, 58, was driving recklessly without a license while impaired. He also had marijuana in his possession.
Stewart was taken to the hospital and was arrested when he was released.
Hensley’s cousin told Channel 9 he’s angry that the driver may have been impaired when the collision happened.
"Somebody is trying to help people because that's what he does. He helps everybody. He doesn't even know you or not -- he helps you,” said Jed Tallent. “It's very frustrating to have people out there doing stuff like that."
Firefighters who Channel 9 spoke with Monday morning said Hensley was always trying to help the community.
"Please be careful. Please slow down,” said Fire Marshal Mike Willis. “Stop if you need to. We all want to go home to our kids and our wife."
At the Fire Department, volunteers were remembering how Hensley lived his life.
Just last month, Channel 9 was with him as he helped an elderly man after a tree fell in his driveway.
Firefighters said Hensley’s 16-year-old son became a junior volunteer when his father joined the department. Their fire gear hung side by side at the department.
"It didn't matter if it was three o'clock in the morning, eight o’clock in the evening -- Jason was the type of guy that was out there with us doing what needed to be done," said firefighter James Deal.
"I was going home to go to sleep,” Stewart told Channel 9 on Tuesday as he was being escorted to jail by police. “That's what was going on."
“Do you have a problem with drugs?” reporter Dave Faherty asked him.
“No. I wasn't high and I don't have a problem with drugs," Stewart replied.
Stewart is charged with felony death by motor vehicle.
"I'm very sorry to the family,” Stewart said. “If I could trade places with him, I sure would."
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