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Deputy who tried to warn of tornado dies of injuries

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 9, 2007, at 1:35 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.

The weekend before the storm that killed him, Robert "Tim" Buckman took his daughter dancing.

The Macksville police officer and Stafford County sheriff's deputy -- a man who fought fires, chased tornadoes and hunted deer with a bow and arrow -- was in the mood for a two-step.

So he picked up his eldest daughter, December Cole, and drove to the Giddy Up bar in Great Bend.

"He's an early bird. He usually wants to head home by 10 or 11," Cole said. But that night, they danced until 2 a.m.

"We made everybody in the bar look bad that night," she said. "Nobody danced like Dad."

Buckman, 46, died Tuesday from injuries suffered after his patrol car was struck by a tornado on U.S. 50 near Macksville on Friday night. He was working as a storm spotter and had hoped to warn residents who lived beyond earshot of tornado sirens to take shelter.

According to family members, Buckman's mother, Elaine, reached him by phone in the midst of the storm.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I don't know where I'm at. I can't see anything. It's too late. I'm screwed," Buckman answered. Then the phone went dead.

Family members' worst fears were confirmed when a motorist driving by after the storm spotted Buckman's patrol car in a field, more than 200 yards from the highway.

It was "smashed like a pop can" with Buckman pinned inside, said his son, Derick Buckman. Derick Buckman, a 25-year-old firefighter and storm spotter, had driven from South Hutchinson after the storm to help with search and rescue activities.

Crews were able to get Tim Buckman out of his car alive, and an ambulance took him to a hospital in Pratt. He was later moved to Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus, where he remained in critical condition.

When family members learned Buckman probably wouldn't survive his injuries, 19-year-old Kylee Buckman thought about her upcoming wedding.

Kylee and her boyfriend, Josh Mondello, had planned an August ceremony at the Buckmans' home in Macksville, beside a pond where the kids used to swim and fish.

"It's always been one of my favorite places, especially when the cattails grow," she said Tuesday. "He was going to give me away there.

"He always joked that he'd make sure my car had just enough gas to get out of his driveway," she added. "I'm his baby girl."

Monday evening, during Tim Buckman's final hours, the family's pastor officiated an "I will" ceremony -- an exchange of vows, minus the required marriage license -- for Josh and Kylee at her father's bedside.

"He couldn't respond, but I truly believe he was there with me -- with us," Kylee said. During the ceremony, the family listened to "Butterfly Kisses," a song Kylee had chosen for her father-daughter dance.

Kylee's sister, December, meanwhile, worried about her husband, who was scheduled to deploy with his Army unit to Iraq on Tuesday.

Army Pfc. Seth Cole was told by his commanders at Fort Stewart in southeast Georgia that he would not be allowed to return home to console his wife and children but instead would be deployed as scheduled.

But military officials changed their minds Tuesday afternoon as Cole and his unit were about to board buses to their deployment planes in Savannah, Ga.

"The battalion commander came over and sat down with me and said, 'Where do you need to be?' " Cole told the Associated Press. "I said, 'I need to be home with my wife's family.' And he said, 'OK, you're going.' "

Fort Stewart spokesman Rich Olson confirmed that Cole had been granted emergency leave.

Just hours after Tim Buckman's death Tuesday morning, family members gathered in a hospital conference room to remember and honor him.

Derick Buckman shared a photograph of his father at Kingman County Lake, holding a 37-inch northern pike and flashing his signature smile.

"He taught me everything," Derick said. "How to hunt. How to fish. Everything."

His father inspired him to become a firefighter, Derick said. During one particularly nasty range fire that both Buckmans worked, Derick says he watched his father "walk through a wall of fire and come out on the other side."

"I said, 'How'd you do that?' and he showed me how he followed a deer trail that cut straight through," Derick said. "He always knew what he was doing. He knew how to stay safe. That's what makes his death so unbelievable."

But, Derick added, "he died a hero." Tim Buckman had checked the organ donor box on his driver's license and made sure to tell family, friends and everyone else about his wishes.

"Now, hopefully, someone else will get his organs and be able to live longer," his son said. "It's just one more way he'll help people, because that's what he was all about."

Contributing: Associated Press

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