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‘Cins was a great big old soul’

Vancouver's first openly gay firefighter dies in India

CINDY KAMPMEINERT. 'She didn't think of herself as a self-proclaimed role model. But just by being who she was, she was a huge role model,' says Vancouver Pride Society president Ken Coolen. Credit: COURTESY OF JAMIE GRIFFITHS

Her warm smile flashes on the video screen one final time as hundreds weep for their lost friend. Behind the striking, dark-haired woman stands the Grand Canyon, a memory from a previous daring adventure.

“Papa, I did it,” Cindy Kampmeinert says on screen, captured on video after one of her many famous trips.

Kampmeinert, Vancouver’s first openly gay female firefighter, died Dec 18 while on another adventure in India. She was 41.

About 1,000 people packed the pews of the First Baptist Church Jan 8 for a formal farewell to Kampmeinert where her best friend eulogized her before the emotional tribute video and last post was played.

A former land surveyor and carpenter, Kampmeinert found her calling as a firefighter with Vancouver fire hall No 3.

She joined only a handful of women in the Vancouver fire department in May 2000, initially as a Hazmat technician and instructor. Over the years, she mentored and provided support to her colleagues, drove fire trucks, and was a member of the Honour Guard.

“She demonstrated the type of firefighter that a lot of people see as the best of the best,” says John McKearney, deputy chief at fire hall No 1 and a fellow member of the Honour Guard.

Kampmeinert was not only a good firefighter; she was instrumental in getting the fire department to participate in Vancouver’s Pride parade for the first time in 2002.

“She was a huge part of the Pride parade because she was responsible for always making sure that the fire department was involved and always made sure that there was a truck there and was always with the hose spraying people down,” says Vancouver Pride Society president Ken Coolen. 

“Prior to Cindy coming into the organization there was probably limited exposure internally to a coworker, a team player, a firefighter who was openly gay and I think that speaks to her credibility,” says McKearney, adding that the firefighters’ participation in the Pride parade has changed the department.

“It’s been a very positive change in the organization. Cindy changed the organization because she was open about her diversity, about her connection to the gay and lesbian community and she was a very credible firefighter.”

“She didn’t think of herself as a self-proclaimed role model,” says Coolen. “But just by being who she was, she was a huge role model. To be a successful woman who was in a male-dominated industry and be very respected and successful in it and to be openly gay are really huge pieces.”

Muscular and fit, the 6’1 Kampmeinert was a strong woman who was able to carry a 100-pound fire hose up four flights of stairs. Her friends call her a gentle giant.

“She gave the biggest, best hug. She’d literally pick me up off the ground,” says Mandy Randhawa. “She was a totally striking, gorgeous woman, so strong and so tender.”

It was this soft side that her friends say they’ll miss most. The way she looked out for people and helped them when they were going through rough times.

Leigh Cousins recalls the time Kampmeinert helped her get out of a funk when a homophobic neighbour was giving her a hard time.

“She just called me one day and said, ‘Why don’t we get you out of here’ and she had a house on the eastside so we just packed up and left,” says Cousins.

 “She’s not the kind of person that’s going to let you down,” says Jamie Griffiths, who lived with Kampmeinert when Griffiths immigrated to Canada.

The ever-spontaneous Kampmeinert was known for getting an idea and devoting herself to it until she saw it through. Cousins laughingly recalls the day Kampmeinert returned from surveying in the bush and announced that she would move to Amsterdam and learn carpentry.

But this gentle giant was also a prankster who loved to laugh and make silly jokes. A travel aficionado, Kampmeinert had travelled widely but was drawn to India recently. 

She died in hospital five days after she collided with a bus on Dec 13 while driving a motorbike near Goa on India’s west coast. A fellow traveller assisted her following the accident but it took several hours to get her to a proper hospital.

Fire trucks, like the one Kampmeinert drove, lined up outside the church last week as firefighters from across the Lower Mainland attended the memorial. Burrard St was closed for a block. Following the service, firefighters lined up, shoulder to shoulder, to salute their fallen friend.

“The measure of who Cindy is is that the fire department is treating her like she was a hero. They all adore her,” says Griffiths.

“Cins was a great big old soul,” adds Cousins. “It’s a sad day. She’s the kind of person that I thought would outlive all of us.”