As a former Navy and NASA chief, Sean O'Keefe has often heard the thump, thump, thump of helicopter blades overhead. Now that has a new meaning, with his last experience being from a cold, metal rescue basket winching up to a copter as he and three others were airlifted out of an Alaska plane crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others. Eleven weeks into his recovery and rehab, O'Keefe is back at his desk as CEO of defense contractor EADS North America, with a renewed respect for the rescuers who helicoptered to the crash site. Now, he says, looking out for their interests will be an even greater focus of his job at the firm that makes copters and other military aircraft and is in a bidding war to supply air refuelers to the Air Force.
"Supporting our troops and first responders has become a deeply personal issue for me," says O'Keefe, whose firm has established a $100,000 scholarship in Stevens's name to benefit the families of National Guard and Coast Guard personnel in Alaska.
He's also talking about how he and the three others—son Kevin, friend Jim Morhard and teen Willy Phillips—kept alert and alive while waiting for their rescue. "Faith, family, friends, and focus," were O'Keefe's motivating factors. But he also mixed in the rosary, bad jokes, and admittedly rotten singing.
Stevens and his guests were flying between fishing camps August 9 when their floatplane crashed without warning. For 15 hours, the four busted-up survivors waited overnight for a ride out. All Catholics, they prayed the rosary, calling out Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Bad singing went on throughout the night, apparently so off tune that rescuers told O'Keefe to stop when they arrived. And the Irishman told jokes, some he picked up when he was former President George H. W. Bush's Navy secretary. His fave: A guy brings a cat into a sports bar and it high-fives everyone when Army's football team kicks a field goal. "The bartender says, 'That's terrific. What does he do when they score a touchdown?' The fellow says, 'I dunno, I've only had him for five years.' "
Oh, he does plan a return fishing trip to Alaska: "You betcha!"
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.