By Mina Kerr-Lazenby, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The local community has been left reeling following the unexpected death of former North Vancouver councillor Bob Fearnley and his daughter, Gayle, but none more so, says his eldest son, than the members of his “incredibly close-knit” family.
“This is the worst thing that has ever happened to our family, and probably will ever happen to our family,” said Fearnley’s eldest, also named Bob.
“Everybody is doing terribly, frankly. There is a silence in all of our lives right now.”
On Feb. 9, the prominent former councillor, 69, and his daughter, 29, perished in an overnight blaze that rampaged through the family’s home in North Vancouver’s Delbrook neighbourhood.
Fearnley and his daughter had been trapped by the flames while his wife Via, a registered nurse originally from the Philippines, and second son Paulo were able to escape before the home was fully engulfed.
North Vancouver RCMP spokesperson Const. Mansoor Sahak said the cause of the fire is not being treated as suspicious. District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services assistant fire chief Scott Ferguson said Tuesday the cause of the fire was still under investigation.
The younger Bob Fearnley, a petty officer with the Navy who had been posted to Esquimalt at the time of the fire, said it will be the councillor’s role as “doting husband and father” for which he will be remembered most.
He was an “incredibly active” father, said Fearnley, and the two had bonded over their mutual love for sports – regularly watching Canucks and Blue Jays games – B.C. wine and science-fiction movies.
Fearnley said the love felt in his family home growing up had been evident to all – especially the “strong dynamic” between his parents, who had been married for over three decades.
They had met on a flight from the Philippines to Australia in the mid-’80s, an encounter that sparked a series of events that could have been plucked from the plot line of a rom-com movie.
Via, at the time studying in Baguio on the Philippines’ island of Luzon, had been battling a bad case of air sickness. Bob Fearnley, on the same flight, had tried to swoop in as hero.
“He tried to help her but she was having none of it. She was like, ‘Oh, just leave me alone. I’m a nurse. I can take care of this.’” Fearnley said with a laugh.
“But then fast forward a few months and they’re both travelling on the same flight again, this time from Australia to the Philippines, and guess who’s sitting next to each other? My mom and my dad, totally by chance.”
Fearnley said the two agreed to meet at the top of a landmark building in Baguio a few weeks later. Memories of each other’s faces were fuzzy, and so both waited until the crowds had thinned, and they were the only two left at the top of the building.
“They didn’t necessarily remember how each other looked, but they knew they had a connection. So they both waited for each other right until the very end,” he said.
The two went on to have Fearnley, now 34, brother Paolo, 32, and Gayle, the youngest of the siblings, who “had been a light to the people that knew her,” he said.
“We were a really, really close-knit family, especially me and my brother and sister,” he said.
“We made a decision a long time ago that we want to always be there for each other, that we would always stick together and never allow anything to come between us. We had said that out loud.”
A wider loss
Fearnley said the recent “rallying around” of the local community has brought to light the indelible mark his father left on the North Shore.
“North Vancouver was really in his heart. This was his home, and he tried his best to leave a positive impact on the place,” he said.
“He knew that a lot of people don’t get a voice, their concerns don’t get listened to, and he was really concerned by that.”
Fearnley had served 15 years as councillor for the City of North Vancouver, between 1996 and 2011, and continued to funnel his efforts into local projects long after his retirement in 2013 – including an unsuccessful run for council in 2018.
While his father’s accomplishments within the community were “too numerous” to list, Fearnley said, if his legacy were to be defined by three things in particular, it would be his determination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Community Energy and Emissions Plan, his work with the North Vancouver library, and his contributions to North Shore’s drug policy making.
In a council meeting on Monday evening, City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan said the fire had taken “two deeply loved and admired members” of the community.
“I believe I can speak for all of council when I say we are incredibly saddened by the tragic and untimely passing of both Bob and his daughter Gayle. They leave behind a grieving family as well as a community,” she said.
She said the incident had been “every family’s worst nightmare” and she extended “deepest condolences to the family, the friends, colleagues and neighbours across the North Shore” who are grieving.
Buchanan invited the community to sign a book of condolences, stationed outside council chambers, and said flags will fly at half-mast until the day of Fearnley’s service.
A GoFundMe page created by Paolo Fearnley has amassed almost $5,000 since its creation on Friday, while another created by close family friends, entitled Help Support the Fearnley Family has garnered over $13,500 from those looking to help replace the “belongings, clothes and essentials” lost in the fire.
“It has been three days since the accident happened. It feels like the world should stop spinning and that the sun shouldn’t rise without my father and my sister by my side,” Paulo Fearnley commented on Sunday.
“My surviving family and our community has pulled us close and we at least have shelter and clothes. Thank you all for all the outpouring of love and support that we have received.”
Fearnley said the family are in the process of planning a celebration of life and an event for the wider community.