A Weeping Water ambulance driver who died Tuesday night following a two-vehicle crash on U.S. Highway 34 east of Lincoln is being recalled as “a great friend and wonderful contributor” to the community.
Robert D. Hanes Sr., 51, was pronounced dead at Bryan Medical Center West trauma center in Lincoln.
William J. Whitlatch, 24, of Syracuse, Neb., who was driving a pickup truck that crossed the center line and collided with the ambulance, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Capt. Dave Lamprecht, of the Cass County Sheriff's Office, said investigators are looking into a report that Whitlatch had been driving erratically.
“A motorist was following Mr. Whitlatch and was on the phone with 911, reporting his erratic driving at the time of the crash,” he said.
A deputy was about 6.5 miles away and was in the process of responding to the call.
An autopsy on Whitlatch was scheduled for Wednesday morning, but results could take a couple days.
Weeping Water Mayor Howard Stubbendieck said Wednesday that he had known Hanes for about 25 years and considered him a very good friend. He said Hanes was active in the First Congregational Church, where he sang in the choir and helped with fundraising activities.
“Everybody here is just torn apart by this,” Stubbendieck said. “Bob died doing his duty and I just can't tell you what that means to this community.”
Hanes worked for Pankonin Inc., a Louisville, Neb., farm machinery dealer. Owner Paul Pankonin said Hanes, a 32-year employee, was known for his great sense of humor and dedicated service to his customers.
“He died trying to help someone and that was the kind of guy Bob was,” Pankonin said. “He really lived his life as the type of guy who would do anything for anybody.”
Hanes became an ambulance driver in July of 2012, Stubbendieck said. His daughter, Melissa Hanes, 30, is an emergency medical technician with Weeping Water Fire and was also injured in the crash along with co-worker James “Beau” Flint, 46.
All three Weeping Water emergency responders were flown by helicopter to Bryan Medical Center West, where the elder Hanes later died. A hospital spokeswoman said Wednesday morning that Melissa Hanes was in fair condition and Flint was in serious condition.
Luther Gunnels, the 50-year-old patient in the back of ambulance, was being transported to a Lincoln hospital. He suffered non-life threatening injuries.
Cass County Sheriff Bill Brueggemann said the crash occurred about 10:30 p.m. on U.S. Highway 34 east of Nebraska Highway 1 near Elmwood, Neb., about 20 miles east of Lincoln. Brueggemann said Whitlatch was driving a 2002 Ford Ranger pickup when it crossed the center line.
William Whitlatch said his son was on his way home from Lincoln, where he worked for a tree service company. He said his son got off work about 5:30 p.m.
In additon to his father, Whitlatch is survived by his mother, Deanna Whitlatch, four sisters and three brothers. His parents live in Syracuse.
The accident remains under investigation by the Cass County Sheriff's Office and the Nebraska State Patrol.
World-Herald staff writer Jay Withrow contributed to this report.