HAPPY COUPLE: Michelle Martin and Michael O’Keeffe and their daughter Ashlin celebrating Michael’s 26th birthday in 2008.
HAPPY COUPLE: Michelle Martin and Michael O’Keeffe and their daughter Ashlin celebrating Michael’s 26th birthday in 2008.

Last goodbye from a loved one

POLICE have handed the findings of their investigation into the ultralight crash that killed two men at Tatham to the Coroner.

The two Northern Rivers men, 27-year-old pilot Michael O’Keeffe, and his friend and passenger, 20-year-old Josef Hainaut, died instantly when their plane slammed into a paddock south-east of Casino on May 7 this year.

The police investigation was conducted with assistance from Recreation Aviation Australia, the industry group responsible for regulatingultralight aircraft in Australia.

The national body responsible for aircraft accidents, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, was notinvolved in the investigation.

Due to the nature of the accident, Lismore Magistrate Robyn Denes, acting for the Coroner, has called for a full brief to be prepared with evidence from an aviation safety expertbefore a coronial inquest can be called.

Today, Mr O’Keeffe would have turned 28. His partner, Michelle Martin, who gave birth to the couple’s second child six weeks ago, talks for the first time to The Northern Star about her soul mate.

It was a crystal clear autumn’s day when ultralight enthusiast Michael O’Keeffe dropped off his daughter Ashlin, 2, and his 21-year-old partner, Michelle Martin, in Lismore before going flying.

It was the last time they would see him alive.

Michelle was 37 weeks pregnant with their second child and had planned an afternoon of shopping while she waited for his return on that fateful Friday two months ago.

The young couple of six years were madly in love and thrilled about the imminent arrival of their first son, Aiden. They had the world at their feet and everything to look forward to.

But it was not to be.

Michael, who was working hard to get his flying hours up for his trainer’s licence, took off from Lismore Airport headed for Casino about 1pm with best mate, 20-year-old Josef Hainaut, in perfect flying conditions.

It was about 5pm that Michelle began to worry.

“It was getting dark and Mic-hael, though he loved to stop and chat to everyone, would never ever leave us in town until dark. He just wasn’t like that,” she said.

Close friend, Ning Myburg, whose husband Dean learnt to fly with Michael and was working at the airport at the time, called to tell Michelle an ultralight had gone down.

“Dean called me with the news, so I rang Michelle to see where she was and to rule out if it was Michael’s plane,” she said. “I drove in immediately to get her.”

The next few hours remain a maelstrom of dark memories and emotions for the young mother.

“It was all a big blur – I think it still is,” she said. “First we went around to Josef’s place to see if they’d seen them, but they hadn’t,” she said.

“So we rang all the hospitals, but no one knew anything. That’s when we went to the police station, about 6pm, and they told me what had happened – a plane, registered in his name, had crashed and there were no survivors.

“I was in complete denial. I think I kept asking what colour the plane was.”

Nine long weeks later it is mid-winter. We sit in Ning’s sunny lounge room at Keerong full of kids and photos and new-born baby things.

Michelle, Ashlin, and now Aiden, have lived with Ning and her family since the accident.

“I just couldn’t go home,” Michelle said. “I don’t know how I would’ve got through this without Ning and Dean.”

Aiden is now six weeks old and is snoozing as his big sister Ashlin fusses over him like only a two-year-old can.

This remarkable young woman, now 22, has had to deal with so much – apart from her loss she had her own birthday the day after Michael’s funeral, their anniversary on July 1, and today it would’ve been his 28th birthday.

“He was my whole life,” she said through tears.

“Before the birth I was very scared, then after I had Aiden I felt suddenly relaxed.

“I felt so sad that his dad wasn’t there, but I felt happy that he was healthy and everything went okay.

“But he’s just like Michael – I said that as soon as he was born. He’s the spitting image of his dad.

“I have days when I feel I can do things on my own, then I have days when I don’t.”

Michelle returned to their former home at Georgica last week and packed up. She hasn’t slept there since Mic-hael died. Now she is organising housing and practicing to get her driver’s licence.

“Once I’ve got my licence I think I might be able to get back on my feet,” she said.

Before the birth I was very scared, then after I had Aiden I felt suddenly relaxed


So very much in love with everything to live for


IT WAS love at first sight.

Michelle Martin was 16 years old and at home in her pyjamas when a handsome young sold-ier, Private Michael O’Keeffe, then 22, came to visit her dad at their Bankstown home in Sydney.

That was six years ago last week.

“I was very young and I looked pretty silly so it must have been love,” she laughed.

Michael was an infantry paratrooper with the 3rd Battalion based at the Holsworthy military camp in Sydney.

The young couple lived in Campbelltown for three years before moving to the North Coast.

“Michael grew up here at Billen Cliffs with his mother and grandmother and a very large extended family and we used to come back here on holidays,” she said.

“We decided to move up together after he left the army and I finished the HSC.

“We always wanted kids and after Ashlin he wanted more – he didn’t like being a single child.

“He was a very honest per

son – what you saw is what you got. He felt deeply about his family and only wanted the best for us.

“He always talked about having children and what he wanted to do with them when they grew up.

“He wanted to teach them to ride and fish and go camping and said we’d do it the right way without the luxuries.

“He lived such a big life in such a short space of time.

“Ever since I met him he had a deep love of flying.

“He also loved music and electronics – anything that gave him a challenge. If something was broken he’d always try and fix it.”

“When he and Josef got together they were like two little kids – always cracking jokes and being silly

“They were pretty funny together – they always made me laugh.

“But they also talked about serious things – politics, ethics and philosophy, though they always disagreed about movies.

“I want to thank my family and friends for being there – and also Ning’s church, the Seventh DayAdventists. I’m not religious, but they raised some money for us.

“I so appreciated their kindness and warmth and support, even though they didn’t know me.”

As a tribute to Michael and Josef Hainaut, Michelle said she planned to plant two mango trees at the crash site at Tatham.

“We’ve spoken to the farmer and organised it – they both loved mangoes,” she said.

“We’ve bought them and we’ll plant them there after winter.”

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