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Hundreds honour veteran Vancouver firefighter lost to rare disease

Mayor Ken Sim proclaims "Daryle Van Horn Day" to recognize deceased captain.
Daryle Van Horn was a 24-year veteran of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services before he retired in 2020. He was diagnosed last year with multiple systems atrophy and died in January after choosing a medically assisted death.

It was evident after the first couple of stories told about Daryle Van Horn that he had a meaningful impact on the many Vancouver firefighters he served with over his 24-year career.

His standing as a well-respected leader was a common theme in speeches delivered last Friday to more than 200 active and retired firefighters packed into a small clubhouse in Burnaby.

It was also well understood that he was a dedicated husband, father and grandfather: a video pieced together with photos of his wedding day, his four children and various family gatherings left some of the men and women in tears.

Van Horn died Jan. 22 after he chose to accept what was an inevitable outcome for a person paralyzed by multiple systems atrophy, or MSA, a rare degenerative neurological disorder that effectively shuts down the body.

Van Horn had earlier been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a condition that caused him to retire in November 2020. Doctors diagnosed him with MSA in April 2023, which led to a rapid decline in his health.

Desiree Van Horn at home with her late husband's captain's helmet. Photo Mike Howell

'At peace now'

His wife Desiree watched her husband of 43 years deteriorate in a matter of months. He was no longer the well-built athlete who scaled the Lions Gate Bridge as a member of the department’s technical rescue team.

“He started falling, losing his balance, fainting and stuff like that — it was mind boggling how fast [the disease] was taking him,” she said from her New Westminster apartment, a few days before the event at the clubhouse.

Eventually, Van Horn became immobilized, which caused him to consider and then decide to choose medical assistance in dying.

He died at home, surrounded by family.

He was 63.

“On the morning he left us, I went into the bedroom and he said, ‘Hon, I can’t even move. I am here, but I can’t move my body, I can’t move my head,’” said Desiree, who shared that Daryle, a religious man, struggled with choosing a medically assisted death but saw no other option.

“At least we got to say what we needed to say to him, and he got to tell us what he wanted to say. So it was very sad, but we know that he's at peace now and not hurting anymore.”

Members of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services honour guard enter a clubhouse with the uniform hat of Daryle Van Horn, as his widow Desiree looks on. Photo Mike Howell

Honour guard

Desiree and her family were at the clubhouse Friday to hear from Van Horn’s other family — the firefighters he was hired with, worked with and played sports with during a career in which he served many roles.

The crowd fell silent as the department’s honour guard members carried Van Horn’s uniform hat into the clubhouse. They set it on a table next to a large photo of Van Horn and his red captain’s helmet.

Known as “DVH” to many on the job, he was a member of the heavy urban search and rescue and technical rescue teams. He was a fire investigator, an instructor and a member of the critical incident stress management team.

Van Horn was a mentor to many, including Jonathan Mineer, who was with him the day before he died. The pair forged a strong friendship and served together at No. 13 fire hall on Prince Albert Street, which was Van Horn’s last posting before he retired.

“People don't often remember the things that are said, but they do remember how somebody made them feel,” said Mineer from a microphone near the clubhouse’s bar.

“And Daryle was a mentor to me and a leader to many. He had a way to make you feel like you made a difference, or were just as important.”

Capt. Daryle Van Horn (second from left) with firefighters Jonathan Mineer, Mark Pruger and Jay Shalist in June 2015. Photo courtesy Vancouver Fire Rescue Services

'I don't think I'm safe'

Mineer first learned something wasn’t quite right with Van Horn during an exercise in June 2020 with recruits at the department’s Chess Street training centre. Van Horn was delayed in his response to a live fire scenario because he couldn’t get his left hand into his glove.

He went to see a doctor about it, knowing something was wrong.

Around the same time, he shared with his wife that he was also having trouble typing up his reports. Van Horn was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a disease his dad lived with for 11 years.

With more than 20 years on the job, he was set to retire within a year, but decided to leave early, despite Mineer and fellow firefighters urging him to stay.

“I asked him, ‘Why don't you stick it out? We can help you. We'll teamwork it, we're there for you [so you can] just enjoy the last bit before you retire,’” Mineer recalled.

“And he said, ‘It's not right. I can't do that to you guys. I don't think I'm safe. What if we got into something bad and I couldn't help? I can't do that to you guys. I’ve got to put the crew first.’”

Daryle Van Horn at the Firefighters' Games in Quebec in 2006. Photo courtesy Van Horn family

'Drive and determination'

Like Desiree, Mineer watched his friend’s health steadily decline, although he emphasized that Van Horn didn’t let it happen without a fight, always pushing back against what is an incurable disease.

About six months after receiving the MSA diagnosis, Van Horn was insistent on using the stairs to get to his apartment, which was on the 16th floor. He wore a neck brace at the time to keep his head up.

“The drive and determination was unreal,” said Mineer, noting that when Van Horn lived in Surrey, he rode his bike to work in Vancouver — a journey he also made for his retirement dinner.

He played rugby, soccer and hockey with the fire department, could “crush” one-armed pushups and once got an offer to play football at a college in Oregon.

Even as his body started to shut down, he still played hockey, taping his left hand to his stick.

Darren Ferris, president of the Vancouver firefighters' hockey club, delivered a speech Friday at the Burnaby Rugby Clubhouse in memory of his friend, Daryle Van Horn. Photo Mike Howell

'Double-barrel Daryle'

Van Horn’s passion for sports was recognized by firefighters at the clubhouse, who wore various jerseys to celebrate a man that Darren Ferris described as “the ultimate teammate.”

Ferris, president of the Vancouver firefighters’ hockey club, noted hockey wasn’t Van Horn’s main sport, asking him once what his experience was on the ice. His reply: “Tube skates and newspaper shinpads a couple of times.”

That brought some big laughs.

So did Ferris’ story about “double-barrel Daryle” getting hit so hard in a game that he was out cold for about 20 seconds. He popped up, shook it off and finished the period.

He stayed after the game for a few beers and then announced he had to leave to go make some extra money driving a cement truck.

“Just amazing after getting probably what was a concussion,” said Ferris, who had to pause a couple of times during his speech to collect himself.

“He's going to be with us in spirit as we finish the season. We shared lots of stories and laughs. We miss him a lot. He was part of our club. We loved him very much.”

Randy Schenderling, a former classmate of Daryle Van Horn's, gives a speech at the Burnaby Rugby Clubhouse. Photo Mike Howell

'Keen and excited'

Randy Schenderling was a classmate of Van Horn’s when they joined the fire department on March 18,1996. Van Horn, who volunteered as a firefighter for several years in Surrey before getting the job, was the oldest of the recruits.

Schenderling said Van Horn naturally took on a leadership role.

“Daryle was keen and excited about the training, and it was rare to see him without a smile on his face,” he said, before talking about another trait of Van Horn’s: he wasn’t always on time, with some giving him the nickname “Daryle Van Tardy.”

“Some would say Daryle had a time management problem,” Schenderling said to laughs.

“Showering after training, we could hear a classmate say, ‘Hey, make sure Daryle isn't the last one out.’ Of course, he always was. We just thought he was being thorough. And after 12 weeks of training, we realized just how thorough he was.”

Other tales shared included Van Horn’s love for television cop shows, the day he surfed alongside dolphins in California and how he dressed in lederhosen for a Halloween party, where he surprised guests with his musical talent on an accordion.

What the crowd at the clubhouse didn’t hear were stories about the fires that Van Horn fought, the people he rescued, the people he saved — a no-go zone among firefighters, who generally choose not to talk publicly about specific emergency calls.

As Mineer said in an interview, “You'd have to dig pretty deep to find out. But I mean nobody really talks about that stuff.”

Capt. Daryle Van Horn during a training exercise on the Lions Gate Bridge. Photo courtesy Vancouver Fire Rescue Services

'Dealt a bad hand'

The celebration of life for Van Horn came two weeks after his funeral at Redeemer Lutheran Church, near Granville Street and King Edward Avenue. Six fire trucks, with ladders raised, were parked outside the church.

All seats inside were taken, with many firefighters standing at the back in uniform.

His children delivered the eulogy.

Chief Karen Fry attended the funeral but did not speak. She never met Van Horn — she joined the department after he retired — but was saddened by the loss of a firefighter who meant so much to so many.

Fry spoke at the clubhouse, where she described Van Horn as “a shining example” of a firefighter both on and off on the job; he was one of the Vancouver firefighters who travelled to New York City to deliver $600,000 to the families of firefighters lost responding to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The chief shared stories she heard about Van Horn helping neighbours during a fire alarm in his highrise — when he was unwell — and paddling across a lake in a downpour from his cabin at Sheridan Lake to help people with a stuck vehicle.

She singled out Van Horn for his work with the department’s critical incident stress management team, whose role is to help firefighters address mental health concerns triggered by a troubling call.

“He truly made a difference in so many people's lives,” Fry said. “We can see that just from the amount of people that are showing up here today. From being a hero on the job and off, Daryle exemplified everything we hoped for in our officers and firefighters.”

The chief said she only hoped that he would get to enjoy his retirement.

“He was dealt a bad hand and taken too soon,” she said.

Losing a son

That “bad hand” also included him being diagnosed in his 40s with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — but beat it — and losing a son two years ago to the fentanyl crisis; Randy, a former honour roll student who excelled in his role at Revenue Canada, had been clean for several years before he overdosed on the day after his 40th birthday.

The stress on Desiree over such loss has taken an expected toll, but lessened somewhat by the outpouring of support from the department and others, including Mayor Ken Sim.

The family’s story resonated with Sim and his staff, which led to a proclamation earlier this month of “Daryle Van Horn Day” in the city. Desiree said she was overwhelmed by the mayor’s gesture.

“The mayor came up to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘If you ever need anything — even if it's 30 years down the road — we want you to come and ask,’” she said. “I was just blown away.”

Desiree and Daryle were married 43 years. The couple met at a Mr. Mike’s restaurant in Vancouver, where Desiree worked as a waitress and Daryle as one of the managers.

As the story goes, he offered her a ride home one night and they remained inseparable.

The Van Horn family when Daryle got hired with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. Photo courtesy Van Horn family

'Heart of gold'

The night before Van Horn died, Mineer was with him.

Word travelled fast through the fire department that Van Horn wasn’t going to be around much longer, prompting an overflow of text and video messages from firefighters.

Mineer was at his friend’s bedside.

“It gave guys a chance to get a bit of closure,” he said, noting Van Horn was overwhelmed by the personal goodbyes, particularly from his crew at No. 13 hall.

“It's nice for somebody to hear that before they go. And it meant a lot to him. He got quite emotional. He got to hear it all and it gave him a boost. That night, he felt as good as he could, but he was ultimately a prisoner in his own body.”

Mineer said his friend was determined to hang on as long as he could, making it through the Christmas holidays. He was able to celebrate one of his son’s birthdays in early January. And he wanted to be around for Desiree’s birthday on Feb. 6, but the disease had fully taken hold.

He made peace with his decision and he let go.

What would Mineer say to someone who didn’t get the chance to meet Van Horn?

“I would just tell them they were missing out,” he said. “He was strong mentally and physically, through and through. He was a guy with such passion for the job, but compassion for everyone else, and empathy for everybody else, and just a heart of a gold.”

Van Horn is survived by his wife, his mother Ida, his brother Rod, his sister Maureen, children Edward, Steven and Amanda, and grandchildren Desmond and Ryker.

Capt. Daryle Van Horn (far right) with firefighters Jonathan Mineer, Chris Wingert and Mike Heslop in June 2020. Photo courtesy Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.