LAS VEGAS – A Las Vegas police officer who was rescuing a hiker stranded in an off-limits area of a mountain northwest of the city died after falling from a helicopter hoist line Monday night.
At an emotional news conference Tuesday, police offered new details about the accident that killed search and rescue officer David Vanbuskirk, 36, at Mount Charleston.
Rescuers responded shortly before 9 p.m. 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 now entering its third week has been burning in the area, and park workers have closed some trails in the interest of public safety. The fire is still throwing off smoke and glows at night, Nichols said. Some trails are closed to protect hikers from smoking material, ash pits and falling trees. On Monday night, conditions were breezy with a bright moon, officials said.
After landing, Vanbuskirk attached a safety harness to the stranded man, who was hiking alone. He signaled to the four rescue workers in the helicopter above to hoist them both up from the craggy ledge, but then somehow detached from the line in midair and fell a "non-survivable" distance to the ground below, officials said.
The hiker was safely rescued and is being interviewed, police said.
The mood was somber among officers, who have not lost one of their own in the line of duty since 2009. Officers Tuesday wore black bands over their badges in honor of their fallen comrade.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies are investigating.
"We're a big family, a close family, and this is going to be trying on us for quite a while," Las Vegas police Assistant Sheriff Joseph Lombardo told reporters shortly after the accident. "We will survive it. We'll come back together, and hopefully in my lifetime, it will never happen again."
Vanbuskirk grew up in the Las Vegas area, was married and lived in Henderson. He had worked for the department since 1999, and had served on the search and rescue team since 2007.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said Vanbuskirk had performed "dozens" of rescues like the one that killed him Monday. Las Vegas rescue workers have completed 130 helicopter rescues in the past 12 months.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said Vanbuskirk's death was "a tragic reminder of the dangers our first responders are exposed to on a daily basis."
"His service to his community, state, and country will not be forgotten," Sandoval said in a statement.
On Twitter, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada called Vanbuskirk a hero.
Others in the police department also praised him.
"He was an exceptionally fine officer," police spokesman Bill Cassell said.