Life was never the same for Julie Light after her husband, Robert, died last year. Inconsolable, the 68-year-old former actress considered her life too much of a burden to bear, and threw herself from the sixth floor of the Sherman Oaks Galleria's parking garage.
The man who broke his neck trying to catch her, security guard Conrad Buchanan, watched over people at the Galleria as if they were his own family. Guided by a naturally protective nature, Buchanan fell easily into a job that involved shielding strangers from danger.
Before Light plunged to her death Sunday afternoon, she saw Buchanan below and tried to wave him away.
He refused and was standing beneath her, arms outstretched, when she landed on him.
On Monday, Buchanan, 26, remained in critical condition at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, facing possible paralysis from the neck down.
His friends and family were by his bedside.
"The act is true to who he is," said Buchanan's minister, Pastor James Smith of the International House of Prayer in East Los Angeles. "That he would just open his arms and give himself like that. . . . That tells you what he's about."
While Buchanan's family prayed for his recovery, Jon Light sat in his mother's Camarillo home racked with sadness, anger and disbelief. He grieved not only for her, but for the man who tried to save her.
"What a nightmare," said the 41-year-old Camarillo lawyer. "If she knew what she did to this man, it would make her sick."
Light's husband, Robert M. Light, was a former head of the Southern California Broadcasters Assn. who died in March 1997. She had met him when she was a young woman starring in commercials for the Hallmark card company during the 1950s. They eventually settled in Sherman Oaks, her family said.
Family and neighbors near the four-bedroom home the couple owned for 44 years described Light as a selfless woman with a ready smile.
Her reported attempts to clear the Galleria parking lot before she jumped were testament to Light's constant concern for others, friends said.
"She would have never hurt anybody in her wildest dreams," said Dorothy Bensussen, a close friend of Light's for more than 40 years who remembers the hearty chicken soup Light made for her whenever she was ill. "She would have been devastated to learn that she hurt somebody."
"That's the part that makes me sick," added Jon Light, who lived near his mother in Camarillo after she put her Sherman Oaks home up for sale several months ago. "We appreciate [Buchanan's] efforts. But we're devastated that he's suffering for it."
With a Los Angeles County coroner's autopsy report still pending, it was unclear Monday why Light killed herself.
Police say she wrote in a suicide note found in her car that she suffered from terminal cancer.
She said in her note that "she has been suffering from cancer and was in a great deal of pain," said Van Nuys Det. Stephen Fisk.
If she was sick, however, Light did not tell her family or friends. They all believed her deep depression stemmed from her husband's death, something Light discussed often.
"I'm not aware of any cancer," said her son, who was planning to have dinner with her the night she took her life. "I spoke with her on Saturday and she seemed like her normal self.
"She mentioned suicide a few times," he said. "We were trying to help her. I thought she was doing better" since moving to Camarillo. "I guess not."
Suicide notes left by Light to her son, daughter Lisa and son-in-law Robert all stated how deeply depressed she had been during the past year.
"I can't cope anymore," one note read, according to Jon Light. "This will be easier for everybody."
At Northridge Hospital, Buchanan's mother Norma, wife LaTonya and sister Melva kept vigil by his bedside, where he opened his eyes Monday but did not speak. Family minister Smith arrived after noon and remained hopeful.
"I spoke to him and he opened his eyes," said Smith, who also manages the building where Buchanan lives in West Los Angeles. "He seemed aware that I was there."
Vi Montes, a hospital spokeswoman, said callers had flooded the hospital switchboard with offers to help the family with medical expenses. Montes said the family was considering setting up a fund.
"I wish there was something we could do for that young man," said Uri Herscher, Light's next-door neighbor for 13 years. We rarely speak of the heroes of our time. I would count this young man among them."
Times staff writers Bettina Boxall and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this story.