LAS VEGAS (AP) – Las Vegas police officers wearing olive search-and-rescue fatigues gripped a church lectern Monday, choking up as they remembered a colleague who died last week saving a hiker stranded on a mountain ledge.
Co-workers described David Vanbuskirk, 36, as a disciplined and humble man who rose before the sun, refused to take off his wedding band for training exercises, and returned to the hospital the day after rescues to check on people he had saved.
“He was absolutely the best of us,” said Sgt. Gavin Vesp, who was Vanbuskirk’s supervisor for 3 1/2 years. “He was a phenomenal human being.”
The auditorium at Central Christian Church, which seats 2,900, was near capacity for Vanbuskirk’s funeral. The church’s upper seating section was a sea of police officers in tan, many wearing a black stripe across their badges as a reminder of the death, which was the department’s first on-duty casualty since 2009.
Authorities are still investigating how Vanbuskirk died performing a maneuver he’d done dozens of times before. The officer was on the search-and-rescue team since 2007 and worked for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department since 1999.
National Transportation Safety Board officials said they expect to release their preliminary report on the accident later this week.
Rescuers responded shortly before 9 p.m. July 22 to reports that a hiker was disoriented and stranded on a rocky ledge just above Mary Jane Falls. The area was marked with signs warning hikers to stay out or face fines, according to Jay Nichols, spokesman for Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.
A wildfire had been burning in the area, and park workers closed some trails to protect hikers from smoking material, ash pits and falling trees.
After landing, Vanbuskirk attached a safety harness to the stranded man, who was hiking alone. Vanbuskirk signaled to the four rescue workers in the helicopter above to hoist him and the hiker from the craggy ledge. But the officer somehow detached from the line in midair and fell a “nonsurvivable” distance to the ground below, officials said.
The hiker was safely rescued.
Vesp fought back tears as he described the helicopter crew returning to the scene to recover “our brother’s” body, and how he touched Vanbuskirk’s face and closed the fallen officer’s eyes for the last time.
“I want everyone to know that David was at peace and that being on that mountain with him that night was the greatest honor of my life,” he said.
Vesp said some have questioned why the hiker entered the area in the first place, but the sergeant told the audience David risked his life for others each day and wouldn’t want people to focus on that.
During the two-hour funeral, Vanbuskirk’s friends and his sister Jenny told stories about his playful side. Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff, Gerald Gardner, said the officer every day displayed “courage most of us can only guess at,” while Sheriff Doug Gillespie lauded Vanbuskirk as selfless.
“Men like David restore the balance,” Gillespie said. “They give us faith that there’s more good than bad in this world.”
When the service came to a close, an honor guard of two dozen drummers and bagpipe players led the way for nine pallbearers, who lifted Vanbuskirk’s flag-draped casket to the open bed of a police pickup truck.
Family members slipped into two cream-colored limousines behind it, and a train of black and white police vehicles followed them to the cemetery, their lights flashing blue and red in silence.