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Skydiver injured in Sky Dive City fall is paralyzed, but optimistic he will jump again

TAMPA

Sebastian Leal doesn't remember when he hit the ground, but he remembers the pain — and that he couldn't feel anything below his waist.

During his 402nd sky dive last week — this one at Skydive City in Zephyrhills — Leal collided with another jumper around 12,000 feet in the air. At 750 feet, his reserve parachute opened. He hit power lines, he said, before crashing to the ground.

He fractured four vertebrae. He's paralyzed from the waist down.

But on Wednesday, just over a week since the accident, the 23-year-old was optimistic and smiling. He not only expects to walk again, but sky dive again, he said from a wheelchair at Tampa General Hospital.

"It's a very rare, freak accident," he said. "I don't want people to be discouraged. I want them to be inspired to go skydiving."

Leal is from Mexico City. He came to Zephyrhills for a skydiving vacation. His brother and dad, he said, had their first skydiving experience there.

But Leal didn't do a traditional sky dive when he hopped out of the plane March 22. He wore a wing suit, something only experienced jumpers who have 200 jumps behind them can do, said David "T.K." Hayes, president and general manager of Skydive City.

The suits have webbing between the arms and legs, making jumpers look like bats. Hayes said they picked up in popularity about a decade ago.

"They make you fly," Hayes said.

And that's exactly what Leal wanted.

"I was consumed by the idea of flying," he said.

His Instagram feed is full of photos and videos of him gliding through the skies, doing flips alongside other jumpers. He usually wears a GoPro camera on his head to capture the jumps from his point of view.

His video from last Tuesday, however, captures his collision, and the several-thousand feet he tumbled in midair, unconscious.

He was supposed to be at the center of a formation with four other jumpers. His video shows him in a lime-green suit, readying to leave the plane. A man instructs each of them on how to position themselves.

Leal said it was a great exit and a great day.

"I did not have a bad feeling," he said.

Five seconds after Leal left the plane, he hit the other jumper. The video shows him slamming against the man, Carson Harty, who was wearing a red wing suit.

"Everyone is here to have fun, but it's a reminder that it's a dangerous sport," Hayes said.

He said the formation Leal was part of is designed to let the jumpers exit as close to each other as they can, one quickly after the other.

"It's like flying fighter jets wing tip to wing tip," he said.

Leal has been skydiving regularly since he was around 19, chasing the thrill that comes with soaring in the air.

Hayes worries the accident may leave Leal unable to walk, as well as unable to sky dive.

"It's just too much metal," he said of the surgery done to Leal's spine, "and too much risk."

Leal is thankful for the retired firefighter who found him when he landed about four miles outside of the drop zone. He immediately called 911 and Leal was airlifted to TGH.

"I might not be here without him," Leal said.

His father, Alejandro Leal, said while holding his son's wheelchair Wednesday that, with the severity of the accident, he's thankful his son is alive.

Harty has been to the hospital to visit, Leal said. Pasco Fire Rescue chief Shawn Whited said Wednesday that Harty had injuries to his head, but was released from the hospital the day after the crash.

"It was not his fault," Leal said. "I don't blame him."

Leal will head to the Shepherd Center rehabilitation clinic in Atlanta on Thursday, he said.

But when he's well, he said, he wants to dive again in Zephyrhills.

Times staff photographer Loren Elliott contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

Skydiver injured in Sky Dive City fall is paralyzed, but optimistic he will jump again 03/30/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2016 11:30pm]
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