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Obituaries

Conrad Buchanan, 34; guard was seriously injured trying to prevent a woman's suicide

December 31, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

It must have looked like a scene from a movie: On top of a parking garage at the Sherman Oaks Galleria stood an aging former actress, preparing to jump.

Pedestrians below obeyed when the grief-stricken woman ordered them to move off the sidewalk. Conrad Buchanan, a mall security guard at the end of his shift, did not. In a moment that changed his life forever, he stayed put, looking up, trying to convince the woman not to kill herself, trying to get her to come down peacefully.

Instead, she jumped.

The woman plunged six stories and fell on top of Buchanan, breaking his neck. She later died. The 1998 incident left Buchanan a quadriplegic and, in the minds of those who heard his story, a hero. The former security guard never saw it that way.

"I saw a person who needed help, and my first instinct was to help," he told a Times reporter in 1999. "I wasn't expecting to come across this difficulty, but I don't regret it at all."

Buchanan, 34, died Wednesday at his home in Long Beach of unknown causes. An autopsy was pending.

When his and the woman's paths crossed on Nov. 15, 1998, Buchanan did what he had done all his life, what his parents had taught him, family members said.

"It's his nature" to help, his sister Melva Manor said in an interview with The Times last week. "He's always been like that. He was always a giving person, caring."

Buchanan was born Feb. 4, 1972, in Panama City, Panama. When he was 11, he and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. After graduating from Crenshaw High School, Buchanan worked a series of jobs including telemarketing and fast food work. He became a father and a husband.

At the time of the incident, he was a 26-year-old who loved his family, fine cars, good music and dancing. He also was planning for ordination as a deacon in his church.

The woman standing on the roof of the parking garage, Julie Light, had recently lost her husband and had left notes that said she suffered from terminal cancer and was in pain.

In later conversations with his family, Buchanan said he did not remember seeing the woman jump. He did remember seeing her falling toward him.

"We said, 'Why didn't you move?' " Manor recalled. "He said, 'I just froze.' "

There were reports that Buchanan tried to catch the woman, but Buchanan did not talk about a specific attempt to catch her, Manor said.

The incident turned Buchanan's life upside down. Local news outlets aired the story, and reporters were present when he was released from the hospital several months later. The public responded with calls, letters and visits. Actor Christopher Reeve sent a letter of encouragement. Then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti visited him. Then-Gov. Gray Davis sent him a commendation for his efforts. In the hospital, he was befriended by singer Rick James. (James died in 2004.) Jon Light, a son of the woman who jumped, also visited.

"I still can't believe what he tried to do for Mom," Jon Light told The Times last week. "He had a rough eight years. He just seemed like a genuinely nice guy. I just felt awful for what he had to endure."

After Buchanan's release from the hospital, the men usually spoke at least once a year, on Feb. 4, an important day for Buchanan and the woman he tried to save.

"The irony was his birthday was my mother's birthday," Jon Light said. "She was born in 1930."

Outside the glare of the media, the result of Buchanan's decision to help was clear each time he looked at his children. "At the time of his accident, he did have an infant daughter," Manor said. "He was never [able] to hold her or pick her up anymore. That hurt him the most."

The man who loved to give now required assistance for every aspect of his life. He received 24-hour home care from nine medical professionals. His van was retrofitted to accommodate his needs.

Buchanan, who was married at the time of the incident, later divorced. Though he lived in his own apartment, his mother oversaw his care. There were friends and nurses, including Gerri Brown, who became like family.

"He had enough people in his life who loved him," his sister said.

Some things remained the same, even after the accident. He still took joy in being a father to his daughters, Constencia, 13, and Antonia, 8, and an uncle to his nieces, including Giovanni, who, when she was a little girl in pigtails, helped push her uncle's wheelchair as he left the hospital. As a teenager she spent her breaks from school helping her uncle.

This year on Christmas Day, family members gathered for dinner at Buchanan's home. He watched with delight as his younger nieces opened his gifts. "He was fine. He was happy. He had a good day," Manor said. The day after Christmas he traveled to pick up his older daughter from Las Vegas, where the two girls live. At home the next morning, he died.

"[My parents] always told us to try to help when someone is in need, to be available and willing to do whatever you can to help a person," Manor said. "He learned well."

In addition to Manor and his two daughters, Buchanan is survived by his mother, Norma Buchanan of Hawthorne; and his sister Patricia Burgess and brother Matthew Cheatham, both of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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