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Risking it all

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

John Vang was channeling his younger brother Christopher’s knowledge of cars when he received the worst phone call of his life.

Normally Christopher would have been with John in the garage tinkering, customizing and rebuilding whichever family vehicle needed the love, but on September 11, 2011 - the night that everything changed - John was solo.

Christopher had gone fishing in Chilliwack with his buddies Sonny and Ming; the trio had a knack for hauling in some large catches and when they did, John was the first to hear about it.

When the caller ID flashed Ming’s number that night, John couldn’t help but smile.

Then he answered the phone.

“I could hear his voice was very very shaky, and he said they all fell in the water and they lost Chris,” John said softly. “I just fell apart, my body just went nuts, I was cold, shivering and shaking.”

Christopher, Sonny and Ming were fishing at Pegleg Bar, a section of the Fraser River populace with Steelhead, Cutthroat Trout and Chinook Salmon, when they attempted to cross a channel to a nearby island.

Ming was first into the shallow water, followed by Sonny and Christopher, which was the order they fell into the water. Ming lost his footing and as Sonny attempted to pull him out, he began to succumb to the current. Christopher flailed his rod towards his friends and they were able to get enough leverage from it to regain their footing.

It all happened so quickly.

With Christopher focused on saving his friends, he didn’t realize the danger he was in as strong currents pulled him into a deeper part of the water and swept him away. He was wearing waders and no life jacket.

Two minutes after John was informed of the accident, he was barreling down the highway holding out hope that Christopher survived the initial incident and was fighting for his life down river.

John didn’t allow himself to think of the alternative. He couldn’t.

John, 28, and Christopher, 24, had become extremely close over the past few years and together with their eldest brother Mike, 32, good times were had when the three connected.

Their love of the Canucks brought them together on most game nights, even if that included watching together over the phone. One of John’s favourite family memories is taking their father Phia to his first NHL game last season. The Vang men were at Rogers Arena for Vancouver’s regular season finale, a 5-0 Canucks win over the Minnesota Wild.

The Vang women, mother Yer and sisters Nancy and Emily, love hockey as well, but this was a guy’s night out, one in which Phia insisted he didn’t have fun on. The dozens of photos on his camera told a different story.

Christopher had to be alive because there had to be more guys’ nights out, more family gatherings, more time spent in the garage between brothers.

The search for Christopher was an exhausting one with RCMP doing all it could before John organized a massive search party that blanketed both sides of the Fraser River downstream from Chilliwack for more than a week until Christopher's body was discovered 14 kilometers from where he was pulled in.

A candlelight vigil was held for Christopher, the son, the brother, the fiance of Juana Nguyen, the friend, on October 14, 2011, which finally gave John and all those who loved Christopher some closure on this tragic accident.

John replays the incident in his head more times than he’d like to admit. He sees it through a prism of pride, confusion and anger.

“I was angry that they went fishing and made a decision to cross like that for sure, but for him to have risked himself like that, it’s just his personality. He was just so willing to help. He wouldn’t think twice and that’s pretty much what happened, he didn’t think twice.”

The Vang family is now working hard to ensure others think twice about river safety.

The Chris Vang Preservation of Life Foundation has been created to help raise money and educate people about rivers and the risks entailed.

“I never want anyone to feel this way, to lose someone so close to you and someone so special, it’s a huge loss. The Chris Vang Preservation of Life Foundation will hopefully help prevent other accidents in the Fraser River.

“It’s not a bad river, it’s just that there’s not enough education and general safety awareness for new fishermen about fishing.”

Christopher embodied the Local Hero pillars of Courage, Honour, Humility, Integrity and Passion and two of his friends are alive today because of it.

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