North Carolina

Retired UNC professor presumed dead after disappearing during 120-mile NY swim

Rescuers swept the Hudson River again on Sunday for a N.C. Moral Monday activist from Chapel Hill who disappeared Friday during a 120-mile marathon race.

The New York Post reported Charles van der Horst, 67, vanished on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge around 3:10 p.m. Friday. The search is now a recovery, said the U.S. Coast Guard, which is working with New York City police.

Van der Horst was in the second-to-last stage of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, which organizer New York Open Water called “the longest marathon swim in the world.” Friday’s leg spanned 15.7 miles, from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the George Washington Bridge.

Van der Horst was finishing Friday’s race when he went under, the group posted on Facebook. That part of the river “is a fan favorite thanks to the fast currents and beautiful views of the Palisades,” the Friday morning post said.

NYOW shared a statement from van der Horst’s family Saturday afternoon.

“The family of Charles Van der Horst of Chapel Hill, NC, is deeply saddened to confirm the loss of our beloved Charlie. He was participating in several stages of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim when he went under at the finish of Stage 6,” the statement said.

“Charlie exemplified living life to its fullest. He put all of his passion and zest into everything he did, from his love of his family, friends and community, to his swimming to his work on social justice and in the medical field. At this time we ask that you respect our wishes for privacy as we mourn this tragic loss.”

The swim’s last and final leg, which would have stretched from the George Washington Bridge to the Verrazano Bridge, was canceled Saturday. NYOW also posted an update on Saturday’s search to its Facebook page.

The group noted “all swimmer safety protocols were in place and that the NYPD was escorting the field.” Van der Horst was an experienced swimmer who also swam on the varsity team as a student at Duke University, a former classmate emailed Saturday. Van der Horst graduated from Duke in 1974 and Harvard University in 1979.

He also is a retired UNC professor of medicine emeritus who now works as a clinical trials training and global health consultant, according to his LinkedIn page.

The UNC School of Medicine released a statement Saturday afternoon.

“Dr. Charles van der Horst was a passionate and dedicated researcher, clinician and colleague during his many years at UNC. He was recognized as a leader in the research and treatment of HIV/AIDS, in North Carolina and worldwide,” the statement said. “He was an incredible force for good, and led by his example of dedication to science and service. Our UNC School of Medicine team is saddened by the news. Our thoughts are with his family.”

Van der Horst, an internationally known AIDS researcher, also was an active participant in the Moral Monday demonstrations that started in 2013. He was among more than 900 people arrested at the General Assembly that year.

Van der Horst said he joined the movement after state lawmakers rejected the expansion of Medicaid, the News & Observer has reported. He told a judge at his 2013 hearing that he was frustrated about not being able to talk with any of the Republican leaders who made the decision. The judge found him guilty of second-degree trespass.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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