TAMPA — A U.S. Special Operations Command skydiver died Thursday after going off course and plunging into a lake outside MacDill Air Force Base, authorities said.
Air Force Col. Larry Martin wouldn't release the man's name Thursday, saying it's customary for the military to give relatives 24 hours to grieve in private. A safety board has been convened to investigate the accident, Martin said.
Military officials say the skydiver was practicing routine jumps with a group of airborne troops when the accident occurred.
Off-duty Tampa Fire Rescue firefighter Matthew Martinez, 29, and his friend Joe Cordes, 26, witnessed it all. The two men tried unsuccessfully to save the skydiver from the chilly, murky water.
Martinez and Cordes were fishing from their kayak in a lake at Gadsden Park about 9:30 a.m. when they noticed about 10 skydivers above.
Then, Cordes said, "We noticed one was way off course compared to the rest of the group."
The men watched from the water as the lone skydiver avoided a power line then crashed into the lake about 100 yards away.
Cordes said the skydiver immediately started swimming upon impact, so he thought that perhaps the skydiver would be okay.
"We figured we'd just pull up and say, 'Hey man. You're way off target there,' " Cordes said. "At no time did we think he wasn't going to make it. But obviously, that's not what happened."
Cordes and Martinez noticed the skydiver begin to struggle when they got within about 20 feet. They ditched their kayak and followed the bubbles on the surface to try to pinpoint the skydiver's location in the lake.
But Cordes said the water was too murky. He recalled going down three or four times in the 20-foot-deep water.
It took about 15 minutes for rescuers to reach them, Cordes said.
Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said responders from the base, fire and police departments searched the 10- to 12-acre lake, which is off Himes Avenue. Wade said visibility in the water was about 1 foot.
Tampa police diver Scotty MacLean found the unconscious skydiver about 10:10 a.m. in 20 feet of water, 20 yards off shore, Wade said. Rescuers performed CPR and took the skydiver to Tampa General Hospital in very critical condition.
It was not known Thursday at exactly what time the skydiver died.
Cordes, a radio station videographer from Fort Lauderdale in town for the Super Bowl, said he and Martinez declined any medical attention.
"We wish we had gotten there sooner," Cordes said.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.