In the last moments his loved ones saw Brett Diederichs, he was doing what came most naturally to him: helping others.
Diederichs, a figure well-known throughout Toronto’s restaurant scene, had been driving to Victoria last week with his mother, Brenda Diederichs, and wife, Madison Van Rijn, to begin what they hoped would be a new life.
A small mudslide had stopped traffic on the stretch of Hwy. 99 known as Old Duffey Road near Lillooet, B.C.
Stopping, Diederichs got out of his car to see if anyone was hurt. A firefighter by training, he had recently gotten his paramedic licence so he could help fight the wildfires that scorched B.C. this summer.
Then, there was a loud rumble, and Diederichs screamed to Brenda, “Mum, get back in the car!”
“My brother was just swept away,” says Diederichs’s sister, Kirsten, recounting the scene as another, larger mudslide had descended upon her brother.
By “complete miracle,” Brenda and Van Rijn survived the event, Kirsten said, after trudging through the mud and waiting two hours to be rescued and taken to hospital.
Four bodies have been recovered so far from the rubble of the Old Duffey Road mudslide, after an unprecedented atmospheric rain storm pummelled B.C. with a month’s worth of water, causing extreme flooding and tearing away entire chunks of highway.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet told the Star a 36-year-old man from Peachland, B.C., who family and friends confirmed to be Diederichs, was also caught in the slide but police were not able to locate him during an extensive sweep of the area.
“At this point, we’ve exhausted all of the available search opportunities,” said Shoihet. “As the days pass, hope is dwindling.”
Tall, tattooed and handsome, Diederichs was described by friends as “whip smart,” often shirtless, and “someone who always had a big grin and a kiss for everyone.”
Six-foot-five Diederichs towered over five-foot-two Kirsten. “He’s a big teddy bear, just big softie,” she said, “he’s one of the kindest, most generous, emotionally intelligent, considerate human beings.”
“Even if you met him for a moment, you’d remember him forever,” said close friend Michael Webster, remarking that Diederichs was a “wise individual” who knew “when to speak” and “how to listen.”
“He held this presence for other people that very few people do.”
Born in New Westminster, B.C., Diederichs moved to Oakville at age nine and attended White Oaks Secondary School. After training to be a firefighter at Seneca College, he pursued his passion for restaurants, where he worked for more than 15 years with stints at institutions like Rodney’s Oyster Bar and The Drake Hotel.
Longtime friend and colleague Chris Searl said Diederichs was a “monster” in Toronto’s restaurant industry and there was “no one in the game who knew more about food and wine.”
The two met about 10 years ago when both were hired to help open Bestellen, a College St. steakhouse from chef Rob Rossi that went on to become Giulietta.
Searl recalled one of their first laughs, when they were fixing the plumbing in Bestellen’s basement, and Searl, being shorter and less knowledgeable about plumbing than Diederichs, was tasked with holding the light for him while he worked.
“I think after that we were having a beer and he said ‘you just spent six hours looking up my nose,’” said Searl in a call with the Star, alternating between chuckles and tears speaking about his friend, who was fluent in Japanese, dabbled in competitive oyster shucking and played guitar in a band. (Bandmate Matt Woo said their band Drunk Hussy was “not the best band, but definitely the most fun.”)
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“There’s a whole city that’s in a lot of shock and a whole industry in Toronto that he touched,” Searl said.
After the pandemic devastated the hospitality industry, Diederichs and Van Rijn moved to Peachland in August 2020 to be with Brenda, who had recently lost her husband — Diederichs’s father — to brain cancer.
The family later decided to move and start a new chapter in Victoria, where they were headed when a torrential rainstorm caused dozens of mudslides across southwestern B.C.
Diederichs and Van Rijn had been together for five years, but first became friends at 18.
“She was the love of his life,” said Kirsten. “She adored him and he adored her right back.”
When Searl’s father was dying this past summer, Diederichs, having recently lost his own dad, shared whiskey with Searl over Zoom and walked him through what to expect, while Searl was in tears in the other end.
“It must have been incredibly difficult for him to talk about that with me … whatever emotions he had, he kind of let me have mine and didn’t want to put his out there,” Searl said.
Diederichs’s family has set up a GoFundMe to raise money for his end-of-life celebrations and to help support his partner, Van Rijn.
Details have also emerged this week about others lost to the storm and mudslides in British Columbia.
Vancouver couple Anita and Mirsad Hadzic and Calgary rugby player Steven Taylor were killed by the mudslide on Hwy. 99, along with an unidentified 47-year-old man from the Lower Mainland.
Ali Azodi, a friend of the Hadzics since high school, told the Star the couple was returning home to their two-year-old daughter after a romantic weekend in the Okanagan when they were killed in the slide.
“Mirsad was one of my best friends, he had the biggest heart and always brought a smile to people’s faces,” Azodi said, adding, “Anita was super-intelligent, compassionate and an incredible human being.”
He said the high school sweethearts “were an amazing couple who loved their daughter more than anything in the world,” and has set up a GoFundMe to help secure her future.
Steven Taylor, a father of four and grandfather of one, was on his way home from work when he, too, lost his life in the slide.
A former rugby player, Taylor moved to B.C. from Calgary about a year ago for construction work.
Close friend Dean Hopkins said that getting the news of Taylor’s death left him “gutted” and sick to his stomach.
“There’ll be hundreds, if not thousands of rugby friends, players, throughout our city and province that will be feeling exactly the same.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based newsletter producer for the Star and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs
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