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Novice skydiver lands after instructor’s death

By Matt Garfield and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. McClatchy

CHESTER, S.C. – A first-time skydiver was able to steer safely to the ground Saturday after his 49-year-old instructor died of an apparent midair heart attack.

The first-timer, described as an active U.S. military member, took over and made a safe landing after the instructor lost consciousness, authorities said.

The pair were attached to the same parachute in a form of skydiving known as a tandem jump, in which instructors are strapped to the backs of their students.

The instructor, George C. “Chip” Steele of Sumter, S.C., became unresponsive in the final moments of a six-minute jump, well after he had pulled the rip cord, authorities said.

Steele’s mother, Betty Steele, said the Chester County coroner’s office gave this account from the surviving jumper: “A few minutes out of the jump, he said something to Chip, and he didn’t answer. And he said something again and he didn’t answer. He noticed when he looked at it that his head was slumped.

“He landed safely … and applied CPR, but it was too late. Chip was already gone.”

Too much time had likely elapsed for CPR to do any good, said Chester County Deputy Coroner Keith Hudson.

Authorities did not immediately release the student’s name. But Hudson credited the first-timer for keeping composure. He said the man is in his 30s.

“He kept control,” Hudson said. “His military experience helped him out a lot as far as making it to the ground safely.”

Steele worked for Skydive Carolina, a business located at the Chester County Airport since 1986. He had made thousands of jumps over a lengthy career, said general manager James LaBarrie.

“There was no equipment malfunction whatsoever,” LaBarrie said of Saturday’s incident. “From what we understand, the instructor evidently had something go wrong medically.”

Steele, who grew up on his family’s farm in Sumter, had been skydiving since before his mother could remember. He was exposed to skydiving in the military decades ago, and the extreme sport became his passion.

“He absolutely loved it,” Betty Steele said late Saturday.

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