Authorities are trying to determine whether a motorist was driving erratically when he crashed into an ambulance on U.S. Highway 34 east of Lincoln, killing himself and the ambulance driver.
Weeping Water ambulance driver Robert D. Hanes Sr., 51, and William J. Whitlatch, 24, who was driving a pickup truck that crossed the center line, died following the two-vehicle accident.
Two emergency responders riding in the ambulance, including Hanes' daughter Melissa, were still hospitalized Wednesday night. A hospital spokeswoman said both were in fair condition.
Authorities also are investigating whether alcohol was a factor in the crash, said Capt. Dave Lamprecht of the Cass County Sheriff's Office.
“A motorist was following Mr. Whitlatch and was on the phone with 911, reporting his erratic driving at the time of the crash,” Lamprecht said.
A deputy was a few miles away and responding to that call.
Lamprecht said he does not think Hanes would have heard the 911 dispatcher telling police over the radio that Whitlatch was approaching the ambulance he was driving.
“I do not think they would have heard that information because different units have different frequencies,” Lamprecht said. “But we don't know if Mr. Hanes knew about the oncoming driver.”
Volunteer rescue squads in the neighboring towns of Nehawka and Elmwood will respond to emergencies in Weeping Water as the town continues to grieve, Weeping Water Mayor Howard Stubbendieck said.
Weeping Water has another ambulance and will be able to continue responding to emergencies once the volunteer force in the town is ready to return to work, the mayor added.
Stubbendieck recalled Hanes as “a great friend and wonderful contributor” to the community.
Stubbendieck said Wednesday that he knew Hanes for about 25 years and considered him a very good friend.
Hanes, a father of four, was active in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, where he sang in the choir and helped with fundraising activities, Stubbendieck said.
“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 sense of humor and dedicated service to his customers.
Hanes became an ambulance driver in July 2012, Stubbendieck said. His daughter Melissa Hanes, 30, an emergency medical technician, and James “Beau” Flint, 46, are recovering from crash injuries.
All three Weeping Water emergency responders were flown to Bryan Medical Center West in Lincoln, where the elder Hanes died.
Luther Gunnels, the 50-year-old patient in the back of the ambulance, was being taken to a Lincoln hospital at the time of the crash. He suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
Cass County Sheriff Bill Brueggemann said the crash occurred about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday near Elmwood, about 20 miles east of Lincoln. Brueggemann said Whitlatch was driving a 2002 Ford Ranger pickup.
Whitlatch, of Syracuse, Neb., died at the scene. 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.
Besides his father, Whitlatch is survived by his mother, Deanna Whitlatch, four sisters and three brothers. His parents live in Syracuse.
World-Herald staff writer Jay Withrow contributed to this report.