John Horvat made a living as a media services technician at Seneca Valley High School and responded to fires and other emergencies during his free time as deputy chief of the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad.

The 53-year-old Germantown man died yesterday morning after falling from the school auditorium's catwalk as he was setting up lights for a church service.

"It's ironic that a guy who worked for three decades saving people's lives would die in an accident like this," said Paul H. Sterling, former chief at the Wheaton fire station, noting Horvat's penchant for safety. "We can't understand how this could have happened. He was always so careful."

Montgomery County emergency personnel were dispatched at 7:16 a.m. to the school at 19401 Crystal Rock Dr. in Germantown. Police said colleagues who were with Horvat said he fell about 30 feet to the floor, where he landed on chairs and hit his head.

Horvat was taken to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, where he was pronounced dead. Police said they are investigating the death as an accident. His body was sent to the chief medical examiner's office in Baltimore for an autopsy, which is standard in fatal worksite accidents.

Horvat had worked for the county school system for 34 years and had been a member of the rescue squad for 29. Relatives and colleagues described him yesterday as an affable, hardworking man and devoted father.

"He will be missed by everyone whose life he touched," said his wife, Beth Horvat. He is also survived by his mother, Phyllis Horvat; three grown children, John Horvat, Michael Horvat and Laura Barnes; and a granddaughter.

Horvat's wife said he was excited about the upcoming 15th anniversary of Quizmaster Challenge, a trivia television show in which students from different schools square off. Horvat helped produce the show, which aired on the school system's cable channel. His other duties included coordinating audiovisual technology devices for classroom and extracurricular activities.

Interacting with students was one of his favorite parts of the job. "Kept him feeling young," his wife said.

On the day he died, as he had done for years, Horvat was preparing the auditorium's lights for the Seneca Creek Community Church congregation, which uses the site for its Sunday morning services.

Seneca Valley Principal Suzanne Maxey said Horvat's death leaves a void at the school.

"He was a trusted colleague. He was a family man. He was the kind of man you'd want as your next-door neighbor," she said. "It's going to be a very difficult week for us."

Maxey said grief counselors would be at school starting today, the first day of homecoming events. The principal said that all events will go on as scheduled and that some will include tributes to Horvat.

His colleagues at the fire station, where Horvat was second in command, said he spent 30 to 40 hours a week there. He inspected ambulances, firetrucks and equipment, looking out for the safety of the 90-member department.

"This was his second home," Steve Sobolewski, another deputy chief at the station, said yesterday. "His wife might have argued that this was his first home."

Sterling said Horvat's work ethic and attention to detail made him a reliable and respected deputy chief.

"He didn't get a penny for doing this job," Sterling said. "I can remember calling him at 2 or 3 in the morning at home about something happening at the station, and he'd be out of bed in a second. He would never complain."

John Horvat had worked for the Montgomery school system for 34 years and volunteered on the Wheaton rescue squad for 29 years.