Retired UNC professor dead after disappearing during NY swim race

NEW YORK — A retired medical school professor and AIDS researcher from North Carolina who disappeared during a marathon swimming race down New York's Hudson River is dead, according to race organizers.

[ALSO READ: Body of missing 14-year-old found in South Fork River]

New York Open Water, the organization that runs the race, confirmed the death of 67-year-old Dr. Charles van der Horst in a Facebook post Saturday.

"The family of Charles Van Der Horst of Chapel Hill, NC is deeply saddened to confirm the loss of our beloved Charlie," New York Open Water posted on Facebook. "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."

Van der Horst was reported missing just after 3 p.m. Friday near the George Washington Bridge. Police said a man who was watching from the river bank saw him disappear and called 911.

The New York City Police Department searched for van der Horst on Saturday after suspending the search late Friday. The Coast Guard called it a recovery effort.

Officials have not said if they recovered his body.

Photo courtesy: ABCNews

Van der Horst was taking part in a multi-stage 120-mile race down the Hudson called the 8 Bridges Race. Organizers canceled Saturday's seventh and final stage of the race.

New York Open Water said in a statement, "Our thoughts are first and foremost with the Van Der Horst family and we ask that all respect their wish for privacy as they mourn this tragic loss."

The group said safety protocols were in place and police were escorting the swimmers.

Van der Horst retired from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill medical school, where his career encompassed clinical medicine, teaching and research. He has served as a consultant helping to implement AIDS treatment and prevention programs in South Africa and as a volunteer physician at a free clinic in Raleigh.

['I chose life': Hiker with ties to NC speaks about surviving 17 days in wild]

The UNC School of Medicine released a statement Saturday saying, "The UNC School of Medicine is shocked and saddened at the news Dr. Charles Van Der Horst has been reported as missing following a multi-day swimming race in New York's Hudson River. Our thoughts are with Dr. Van Der Horst's family at this time."

Van der Horst wrote about participating in previous swimming races down the Hudson in a column that appeared in the News and Observer last year.

Photo courtesy: ABCNews

"Racing 15 miles in the Hudson River beneath the cliffs of West Point, dwarfed by an oil tanker with its propellers moving whump, whump, whump like some whale in heat, brought perspective as to the vastness of nature," van der Horst wrote.

He wrote that when the waves tossed him "like a piece of flotsam" he embraced "the calm knowledge that I could ride them out despite my primal fears of the immense crushing power."

The swim race has seven stages. Friday was stage six -- 15.7 miles from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the George Washington Bridge.