ST. PETERSBURG — As delighted spectators watched on the beach, a man buckled into a harness and kite and flew 350 feet above St. Pete Beach.
Hal Elgin couldn't see them, however. By the time he was in the air he was stone cold unconscious.
Doctors would later tell him he had been flying with a broken neck, an injury sustained from a fall earlier the same day.
When his wife turned the boat, he failed to adjust and plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico.
A priest at Palms of Pasadena Hospital gave last rites. The hospital told Mr. Elgin's family that he had died.
That was 35 years ago. Since then, Mr. Elgin, the Tampa Bay area's pioneer of trick water skiing, hang gliding and parasailing, has been injured many more times and gotten back up.
On Sunday, Mr. Elgin , a St. Petersburg firefighter and daredevil, died for the second and final time. He was 75. His ripples of influence have spread as far as Europe and Japan.
"Basically anyone within a 150-mile radius of St. Petersburg who has skied professionally at Cypress Gardens, Sea World Orlando or any of the professional ski shows in the country at one time or another have learned from or skied with Hal in ski shows," said Gary Stout, a former top-tier water skier in California and Florida.
His legendary exploits include skiing 1,600 miles with nearly a dozen other skiers from St. Petersburg to the 1964 New York World's Fair. The St. Petersburg World's Fair Water Ski Team cut across the Cross Florida Barge Canal and up the coast. Skiers went over ocean swells higher than the boat, through fields of jellyfish and around debris that included floating logs.
After moving from Ohio in 1953, Mr. Elgin taught himself to ski. Following a stint in the Air Force, he opened a ski school in St. Pete Beach to help get through St. Petersburg Junior College. He founded an amateur team, the Aquamaniacs, and a business, Hal Elgin Holiday Water Sports.
He did what was then an amazing feat, orchestrating human pyramids of male and female skiers.
"In the late '50s and throughout the '60s, that was the high water mark," said Stout, 66, who now judges national ski competitions. "Water ski shows were still a gee-whiz, oh, my god, look at that, kind of thing."
Mr. Elgin's groups performed at tourist attractions around the state. In 1964 he went a step further by inventing a way to tow skiers across swimming pools by attaching the tow rope to the jacked-up wheels of a car.
The "car system," as he called the method, ranked among his proudest achievements, said his daughter, Linda Fox-Garland. Skiers sailed across shallow ponds in mall parking lots or at boat shows, usually as part of a promotion.
Increasingly, Mr. Elgin devoted himself to the emerging sport of hang gliding. He flew over and under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on a kite, the precursor to hang gliding. In 1975, he broke his neck falling into the gulf in an exhibition, but wasn't aware of the injury.
When the tow rope jerked taut on his next try, he lost consciousness — before the ascent. His fall of 350 feet stunned his family, which never lost hope.
"They came out and told us he had died," Fox-Garland said. "We said, 'Nope. My dad didn't die.' "
In 1981, a hang glider died at the Suncoast Tow-Launched Hang Glider Championships, which Mr. Elgin organized, after he was unable to steer away from a construction crane. Mr. Elgin attributed the accident to pilot error and defended his sport, telling the St. Petersburg Times: "A religious experience means a lot of things to a lot of people. I don't know that it can be called that. However, there is a great adrenal input. You can feel euphoria and exhilaration and a wonderful rush that is indescribable."
Following a diagnosis of lymphoma earlier this year, Mr. Elgin decided to throw himself a party.
At Tower Lake in Westchase in May, after the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team had practiced, a crowd gathered by covered picnic tables, where Mr. Elgin had bought the cold cuts and drinks.
If he was going to die, he would at least enjoy the party.
"He was joking about it," said Stout. "He said, 'Hey, I can try things now that maybe I wouldn't have tried when I was younger."
At his request, Mr. Elgin's family will scatter his ashes in the Gulf of Mexico.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]