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July 31, 2014

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Metro Police officer dies during rescue of stranded hiker

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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.

Updated Tuesday, July 23, 2013 | 2:10 p.m.

David Vanbuskirk

David Vanbuskirk

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Metro Police search and rescue officer David Vanbuskirk hands a bag of Christmas presents to Kim Koster at the entrance to the Echo subdivision of Kyle Canyon on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010. Koster said she left her cabin to get gas for the generator, then came back to find out about the avalanche warning. Search and rescue officers went to her home and picked up her dog and Christmas presents. Areas of Kyle Canyon received between 37 and 90 inches of snow from the recent storm.

A Metro Police officer was helping hoist a stranded hiker to a rescue helicopter Monday night on Mount Charleston when the officer became detached from the line and fell to his death, Sheriff Doug Gillespie said.

The officer, David Vanbuskirk, 36, of Henderson, had been with Metro since October 1999 and with the department's Search and Rescue Section since February 2007, officials said.

"Our team is devastated by the loss of Dave, a well-respected member of our team — a leader and a friend," said a message on the Metro Search and Rescue Facebook page, which has a picture of a badge with a black ribbon across it. "Thank you for all of your support and condolences. It is an understatement to say that he will be greatly missed."

The National Transportation Safety Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Metro will investigate.

Speaking at a news briefing today, Gillespie said Metro would shroud its badge and fly flags at half staff to honor Vanbuskirk.

“Normally an officer loses his life or her life in pursuit of a criminal suspect, but this officer was doing what he’s done dozens of times in his career — he was helping to rescue someone,” Gillespie said.

That rescue operation began just before 9 p.m. when Metro received a call about a disoriented hiker stranded on a rock ledge near Mary Jane Falls.

A Metro helicopter with five people on board, including Vanbuskirk, located the male victim about 10:10 p.m., and Vanbuskirk was lowered to the hiker, Gillespie said.

Vanbuskirk attached the victim to the hoist, but as they were being lifted to the helicopter, Vanbuskirk became detached and fell to the canyon below, Gillespie said.

The hiker remained attached to the hoist cable and was safely lifted into the aircraft, officials said.

Gillespie called Vanbuskirk's fall “nonsurvivable” and said he died on impact. The distance he fell is part of the investigation, officials said.

Vanbuskirk is survived by his wife and extended family.

Assistant Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said, "We're a big family, a close family, and this is going to be trying on us for quite a while. We will survive it. We'll come back together, and hopefully in my lifetime, it will never happen again."

It’s unknown at this point how Vanbuskirk became detached from the line, Gillespie said. Authorities considered conditions “favorable” for performing that rescue technique last night, he said.

In the past year, Metro’s SAR team 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.”

Over the course of Vanbuskirk's 13-year career, he often served as a public ambassador for Metro's Search and Rescue Section, appearing at meetups of local hiking groups and at the Henderson Rotary Club to talk about the unit and how members went about their jobs.

Vanbuskirk trained at Sergio Penha’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Las Vegas for about 10 years and had a black belt, according to a friend and training partner who asked not to be named.

“Dave was everything you want to see in a guy,” his training partner said. “He was tough, he was technical, great on and off the mat. Dave was the guy.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck tweeted his condolences to Vanbuskirk's family Tuesday morning, calling the officer's death a "tragic loss" for Metro and Clark County.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller said via Twitter, "Saddened to learn @LVMPD and Nevada lost a hero. Thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of officer David Vanbuskirk."

The death was the first of a Metro officer in the line of duty since 2009 and the 18th since the department was founded.

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