Police said the hiker had no business being in that dangerous area of Mount Charleston, surrounded by cliffs with steep drops.
That didn’t matter to officer David Vanbuskirk. The veteran Search & Rescue officer’s job was to save anyone in distress — including someone who put himself in harm’s way.
Vanbuskirk and his four Las Vegas police colleagues took a helicopter about 9 p.m. Monday to the Mary Jane Falls area and located the man, who was stranded near a cliff and disoriented.
The pilot deemed the safest option was to hoist the man into the aircraft because the area was too dangerous to access on foot. Vanbuskirk, the rescue crewman, would be lowered to secure the man and bring him to safety.
It was a rescue the officer had performed dozens of times, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said Tuesday at a tearful news conference.
But something went wrong, and Vanbuskirk fell from the hoist. Gillespie said it wasn’t yet clear how far the officer fell, but he died on impact.
“It was a nonsurvivable fall,” the sheriff said. “It’s always a dark day when you lose one of your own.”
The hiker, who was on the mountain alone, was rescued.
Vanbuskirk, 36, of Henderson, was born and raised in Las Vegas. He joined the department in 1999 and worked with the rescue team, known as SAR, since 2007.
Gillespie said the officer was married, without kids, and had extended family in the Las Vegas area. The sheriff spoke with several family members after the accident.
“All things considered, they’re doing well,” he said.
It was unclear whether equipment had malfunctioned. There were many questions the department couldn’t answer, Gillespie said, and many agencies that would investigate.
He said the National Transportation Safety Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and his own department would conduct a thorough investigation.
Gillespie said the identity of the hiker would not be released. A police spokeswoman said that the man was not supposed to be hiking in the area and that the warning was posted on a sign.
It was unclear what sign she was referring to. U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jay Nichols said notices have been posted at the bottoms of several trails that remain closed because of the Carpenter 1 Fire, but the trail to Mary Jane Falls was reopened Friday, as fire operations were scaled back.
That part of the mountain did not burn.
Officer Bill Cassell described the terrain as “very vertical.” It was too early to determine whether the hiker would be cited, said Cassell, a spokesman who lives on the mountain and has extensive experience with the rescue team.
A helicopter rescue is not uncommon for the department’s rescue officers.
In the past 12 months, the unit conducted 150 rescues, 130 of them using a helicopter. In total, 173 people were rescued in that span, police said.
Vanbuskirk was one of seven commissioned officers who conduct rescues. The unit also has 14 pilots, a sergeant and a lieutenant, and a healthy number of volunteers, police said.
Weather didn’t play a major factor in the incident. Gillespie said a helicopter rescue would not have been conducted if the conditions were not favorable.
Gillespie said the department would lower flags to half-staff and shroud badges in honor of Vanbuskirk.
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck volunteered with SAR for 15 years and worked with Vanbuskirk, he said in a statement.
“Today is a dark day for the Las Vegas search and rescue community and the Las Vegas Metro family,” Heck wrote. “I remember when Dave first joined the unit — he was ambitious, motivated, professional and always smiling. While today we mourn the loss of Officer Vanbuskirk, we also celebrate his 13-year career serving the residents of Clark County.”
Retired Las Vegas police detective Garth Baker, 44, described Vanbuskirk as an energetic cop with extreme intelligence. “Everything just came easy for him,” said Baker, who was the primary officer on Vanbuskirk’s ride-along before he joined the department. Vanbuskirk later joined Baker’s squad as a full-time officer.
Baker recalled Vanbuskirk posing for a picture with a woman while patrolling on New Year’s Eve in 2000. Just as her friend snapped the photo, the woman stuck her tongue on his face.
A Review-Journal photographer captured the moment.
“Dave had no idea it was coming. It was hilarious,” Baker said.
He said Vanbuskirk found his calling with SAR. It was a job designed for his personality.
“He was more of a helper, in my eyes, than an arrester. His passion was to help people, and he would go above and beyond on every task. Just a great guy,” Baker said.
This wasn’t the first time a SAR officer was killed on Mount Charleston.
Russell Peterson, 40, died in 1998 while training on the mountain. As a climbing partner scaled a frozen waterfall on Echo Face in the area of Cathedral Rock, a large chunk of ice weighing thousands of pounds dislodged.
The ice fell and narrowly missed the climbing partner before striking Peterson, who was standing at the base of the waterfall. He died instantly.
Gillespie said a memorial service will be held for Vanbuskirk, although his family would determine whether the service would be public.
The sheriff did not personally know Vanbuskirk but said his family and co-workers described him as a very special person. Gillespie said the department was lucky to employ many officers willing to put their lives at risk for the public.
“And on a day like this you appreciate them more than ever.”
Reporter Henry Brean contributed to this report. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0283. Follow @blasky on Twitter.