Funeral held for Burke Co firefighter killed while clearing storm debris

Stewart (Steve Ohnesorge | WBTV)
Stewart (Steve Ohnesorge | WBTV)

VALDESE, NC (WBTV) - A funeral was held Friday for a volunteer firefighter from the Triple Community Fire Department in Drexel who was killed after being hit by a car while trying to clear debris from a road in Morganton.

Firefighters were dispatched to a tree that was blocking the eastbound and westbound lanes of Highway 70 East near the Drexel intersection just before midnight Sunday. Officials say Jason Keith Hensley and another firefighter were wearing reflective vests and standing next to vehicles, including a firetruck, that had emergency lights flashing.

Fire Marshall Mike Willis says a truck, driven by 58-year-old Randall Stewart, hit Hensley, Hensley's vehicle and then the firetruck. The 40-year-old firefighter was killed "instantly upon impact."

His funeral was held at the First Baptist Church of Drexel at 200 South Main Street Drexel, NC.

If you drive through Drexel, you'll see that flags are at half-mast to honor Hensley. The town has a population of about 2,000, and it's not hard to find someone who is in mourning.

The Drexel Barbershop sits yards away from where the funeral services were held. David Shirley, the head barber at the shop, says the community has a somber feeling now that Hensley has been laid to rest.

"It's a lower-key, slower-pace than usual," said Shirley.

Many inside the barbershop say they did not know Hensley personally, but would see him around town quite frequently - and they're hurting just same.

"I didn't know him, it just hurts," said Iris Suddreth of Drexel.

"I have seen him around the community and he was well-liked. We're a little town," said Shirley.

A musician plays music inside the barbershop as they reflect on the guy they call a hero and the man who enjoyed helping others anytime there was a need.

A procession was held on Tuesday for Hensley. Along the overpasses on Interstate 40, fire trucks gathered to pay respects and people held their hand to their heart in a salute to the fallen firefighter.

Hensley's mother watched from the exit 119 overpass as friends hugged her.

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As the procession made its way back to Burke County, the man accused of killing Hensley was taken to jail. Randall Stewart has been charged with felony death by vehicle. That's in addition to charges of driving while impaired, reckless driving, and possession of marijuana.

Stewart told WBTV when asked about the wreck, "It was not my fault."

Stewart claims he was tired and heading home to go to sleep. He said that while he did see the lights of the emergency vehicles, he did not see Hensley. When asked if he was high on drugs at the time,  Stewart said no.

"I wasn't high, I don't have a problem with drugs," he said.

Moments later, he said, "I haven't been high in days."

When asked again about Sunday - when the accident happened - he admitted, "Earlier in the day I smoked a joint."

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