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September 30, 2014

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Metro officer remembered for his humor, dedication, inspiring confidence

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Yasmina Chavez

Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie addresses the media about the death of David Vanbuskirk, a Las Vegas Metro Police Department Search and Rescue officer, Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

David Vanbuskirk

David Vanbuskirk

A squeak would break the silence, sending giggles up and down the line of police academy cadets standing at attention at the end of another rigorous day.

The culprit wasn’t a lost mouse or rubber shoe sliding across tile. It was future Officer David Vanbuskirk, a member of the fifth Metro Police academy class in 1999, piping up to lighten the mood.

“Everyone would giggle even though they didn’t want to,” said Metro Detective Greg Theobald, who was in Vanbuskirk’s academy class.

Vanbuskirk, 36, died Monday night after he fell from a hoist cable attached to a helicopter while rescuing a stranded hiker on Mount Charleston.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie called the tragedy a “dark day” for the police department and ordered flags lowered to half-staff to honor Vanbuskirk, badge No. 6482.

“There is no greater purpose than living a life of service to others,” Gillespie said. “This officer dedicated his life to saving people. That act ultimately cost him his life.”

If Vanbuskirk wasn’t saving people as a member of Metro’s Search and Rescue Unit, he was the guy with the “great sense of humor” who was helping his friends and colleagues, Theobald said.

Theobald, who was shot in February 2012, said Vanbuskirk — or “VSB” as he was known in his academy class — regularly called to check up on him. More recently, Theobald said his wife often ran into Vanbuskirk at a local gym.

“Vanbuskirk was the most disciplined, dedicated person I’ve ever met — just as a human being,” he said.

Vanbuskirk, a Henderson resident who grew up in Southern Nevada, is survived by his wife and extended family. He was hired by Metro in October 1999 and joined the SAR Unit in February 2007.

The rescue operation that resulted in his death began shortly before 9 p.m. Monday when Metro received a call about a disoriented hiker stranded on a rock ledge near Mary Jane Falls.

Vanbuskirk, acting as the rescue crewman aboard the helicopter, was lowered to the cliff, where he attached the hiker to the hoist cable, Gillespie said.

As the pair were being lifted up to the helicopter, Vanbuskirk became detached and fell an unknown distance to the canyon below, Gillespie said. He died on impact.

The male hiker was pulled to safety aboard the helicopter, Gillespie said. Another SAR team responded immediately and recovered Vanbuskirk’s body, police said.

Police said it’s unclear how Vanbuskirk became detached from the line. The National Transportation Safety Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Metro are investigating.

Ken Luzak, a supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Vanbuskirk led training for agents on outdoor marijuana grow eradication teams and, in the process, would spend hours teaching emergency first aid and proper safety techniques.

Vanbuskirk sometimes accompanied the eradication teams on missions in the Spring Mountains and helped lower agents from helicopters, Luzak said.

“You could only wish you could have friends like him,” said Luzak, who knew Vanbuskirk for six or seven years. “This guy was one of the best. All of us put our lives in his hands. You were always confident when it was him next to you.”

Early Tuesday morning, television crews filmed a solemn procession of police cars leaving the mountain with lights flashing.

During the press conference hours later, Gillespie acknowledged inherent dangers associated with helicopter rescues but noted that conditions were deemed “favorable” for the technique.

In the past year, Metro’s SAR Unit has performed 150 rescues, saving 173 people total, according to department data. Of those rescues, 130 involved a helicopter.

“There are risks associated with (helicopter rescues) just like in many aspects of our profession,” Gillespie said. “Today one of those risks rose its ugly head, and I lost one of my officers.”

The death was the first of a Metro officer in the line of duty since 2009 and the 18th since the department was founded. In 1998, Officer Russell Peterson died while participating in a training exercise for the SAR Unit.

Theobald said he will always remember how much he looked up to Vanbuskirk, despite them graduating from the same academy class.

“It’s hard to describe the perfect cop,” he said. “But if you were able to point at someone, you’d point at David Vanbuskirk.”

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