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Unpredictable winds cited in death of skydiver Stephen O'Keefe, 70

ZEPHYRHILLS — As he was loaded into an ambulance after a hard landing Saturday, Stephen O'Keefe asked the Skydive City staff to find his car keys and pack up his gear for when he returned.

Skydive City manager David "TK" Hayes didn't see the landing, but he could tell the veteran skydiver was in pain.

"I was expecting to talk to him this week and ask him what happened," Hayes said.

But he never got the chance: O'Keefe, 70, died early Monday morning from injuries sustained in the skydiving accident.

Family members said a gust of wind caught O'Keefe's parachute and caused him to land badly. The Medical Examiner's Office in Polk County, which performed an autopsy Wednesday, said the death was caused by blunt impact to the torso.

Wind conditions Saturday were "less than ideal," Hayes said. Only experienced jumpers like O'Keefe were allowed in the air.

An avid skydiver, the former FBI agent, Pinellas County prosecutor, soldier and all-around adventurer had logged hundreds of jumps at Skydive City.

"He's been jumping up here for decades, I expect," Hayes said. "I've been here 15 years and he was here when I arrived."

Hayes came to O'Keefe's side when he heard the skydiver was injured. O'Keefe was awake and alert, but Hayes could tell he was in pain.

"We've seen a lot of skydiving injuries," he said. "I knew he was broken."

O'Keefe was taken to the trauma center at Lakeland Regional Medical Center, where he later died.

The Zephyrhills Police Department is investigating O'Keefe's death. No report was available Wednesday.

The fatality marks a grim milestone, the first death at Skydive City in 2010.

The popular facility, which draws skydivers from around the world, saw two fatalities in 2008: a 45-year-old Finnish man who passed out mid dive and spun out of control, and 48-year-old Zephyrhills resident Debbie Laws, who collided in the air with another skydiver. The year before, 68-year-old Johnny Gates of Lakeland died during a dive, apparently from a heart attack.

All three were experienced skydivers.

The United States Parachute Association said skydiving fatalities reached a 40-year low in 2009, with 16 civilian fatalities out of nearly 3 million jumps. The group attributed the decline to safer equipment and better training.

Family members said O'Keefe served in both the Marines Corps and the Army Special Forces. He was a career man with the FBI, including time in the Tampa office, and spent 19 years with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on felony cases — including murder trials.

A service is being arranged for Saturday.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Unpredictable winds cited in death of skydiver Stephen O'Keefe, 70 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 7:17pm]
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