Tornado's death toll rises as officer taken off life support

Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Members of the Kansas National Guard and postal inspectors raised an American flag Tuesday over the rubble of the U.S. Post Office in Greensburg, Kan. A 1.7-mile-wide Category F5 enhanced tornado, with wind estimated at 205 mph, destroyed about 95 percent of this farming town Friday, claiming at least 10 lives in Greensburg. (Karen Wagner ~ Associated Press)

GREENSBURG, Kan. -- A police officer who was critically injured in the tornado that tore apart Greensburg was removed from life support early Tuesday, a few hours after his daughter was married at his bedside.

Robert Tim Buckman, a 46-year-old officer from nearby Macksville, suffered a head injury in the storm Friday that also killed nine people in Greensburg and another person nearby, officials said. He died early Tuesday at a Wichita hospital, his son Derick Buckman said.

"He died being a hero," Derick Buckman said. "He was sworn to protect people, and that's what he was doing the night he got picked up by a tornado."

During his final hours, Robert Buckman symbolically gave away his 18-year-old daughter in a marriage ceremony at his bedside, his son said. The family's hometown preacher officiated at the ceremony for Kylee Buckman and her boyfriend, Josh Mondello, 22, Derick's best friend.

"He was there with his daughter to give her away," said Derick Buckman, a 25-year-old firefighter.

Buckman's son-in-law Seth Cole, who is in the Army and had been scheduled to deploy to Iraq on Tuesday, said he requested leave to be with his wife, their three children and her family Monday, but his request was denied by commanders at Fort Stewart, Ga. As he was preparing to leave later Tuesday, his battalion commander informed him he would be allowed a delay to attend the funeral.

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

Cole said he didn't know how much time he'll have before he has to deploy to Iraq. He said his family was close to his father-in-law.

"He was a really awesome guy," Cole said. "The best thing I remember about him was going fishing and going hunting with him -- at least 10 to 12 times a year if we had the chance."

Search and rescue operations continued Tuesday in Greensburg, where emergency responders have struggled to determined if any of its 1,600 residents are missing because so many are staying with friends or relatives rather than in shelters.

President Bush will tour the damage today.

The 1.7-mile-wide Category F5 enhanced tornado, with wind estimated at 205 mph, destroyed about 95 percent of this farming town Friday.

The death toll could have been much worse, but for a 20-minute warning -- a rarely issued "tornado emergency" alert -- that gave people time to take shelter in basements and storm cellars.

"When you look around at the devastation here, it is amazing that there aren't more deaths," said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. "You really can't look in any direction without seeing destruction, without seeing houses that are demolished, piles of rubble."

The last day anyone was found alive in the wreckage of Greensburg was early Saturday, when two elderly women were pulled from the wreckage of a Mennonite church.

Five trailers to house displaced families have arrived, and 20 more are on the way, said FEMA Director R. David Paulison, who toured the town by bus on Monday.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said the government's response to the disaster was limited by ongoing National Guard deployments to the Middle East.

"I don't think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower," Sebelius said. "The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."

White House spokesman Tony Snow rejected the criticism, saying the National Guard had equipment positioned around the country to respond to disasters when requested by states.

Buckman was critically injured as he drove near Greensburg. Other victims were identified as Greensburg residents Claude Hopkins, 79; Larry Hoskins, 51; David Lyon, 48; Colleen Panzer, 77; Ron Rediger, 57; Evelyn Kelly; 75; Sarah Thackett, 71, and Beverly Volz, 52; and Richard J. Fry, 62, of Albuquerque, N.M. The storm system killed a 12th person elsewhere in Kansas.

The storm system lingered over the central Plains in the week and was being blamed Tuesday for flooding across the states. The National Weather Service issued flash flooding warnings for 10 Oklahoma counties and several rivers were above flood stage. Thunderstorms are expected to continue until about Thursday.

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