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Friends remember tow boat operator who died last week

Belhaven Fire & Rescue is remembering the life of James Cleary, the assistant fire chief, who died last week. (Nate Belt, NewsChannel 12 photo)

It's been a sad weekend for those who knew James Cleary.

It was on the Pungo River where Cleary went missing early Thursday morning after his tow boat capsized while towing another vessel. His body was found Friday evening by officials who had been searching for him since he went missing. On Monday, we spoke with some of his friends about his loss.

"He was a giver, not a taker. And it showed," said Nathan Van Nortwick, a member of the Belhaven Volunteer Fire Department who worked with Cleary.

The flag outside the Belhaven Volunteer Fire Department was flying at half staff on Monday. Cleary, or JW as hsi friends called him, was the assistant fire chief there.

"It's weird, it's weird around here," Van Nortwick said. "You always hear there's a hole to fill and that's definitely true here. It's going to be a whole lot different without having JW around, for sure."

Van Nortwick began volunteering at the fire department in 2009. He considered Cleary one of his very close friends. He said in his spare time, Cleary tried to be on the water as much as possible and he feels fortunate to have spent time in his boat with him.

"I used to go ride with him and we'd sit there 10, 12 hours sometimes and just talk about whatever you know like a lot of time hunting and fishing came up," Van Nortwick said.

Van Nortwick said there's one thing in particular he'd like to say about Cleary that he believes others who knew him would express, too.

"If you needed help, he was gonna help you," Van Nortwick said. "He didn't care who you were or where you were. He would drop what he was doing and come help you and he did it many many times."

Cleary's wife said off camera her husband was an amazing Christian and father. She also said she had 27 years of memories with him that she'll cherish for a lifetime.

Cleary's funeral is slated for Tuesday at 2 p.m. at West Belhaven Church. Visitation will be at the church from 12:30-2 p.m.

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