- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — A propeller-driven seaplane carrying 20 persons crashed off Miami Beach within sight of the city’s high-rises yesterday, killing at least 19 of those aboard, authorities said.

Witnesses said the plane blew apart in the air, and the FBI joined in the investigation.

Scuba divers and rescuers in speedboats struggled to reach the victims, but found no sign of survivors as evening fell.

The Chalk’s Ocean Airways plane — a twin-engine Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard — went down around 2:30 p.m. after taking off from Miami for the island of Bimini in the Bahamas, crashing in a narrow channel used by cruise ships, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The Coast Guard said 19 bodies were found. The plane was carrying two crew members and 18 passengers, including three infants, authorities said.

Because of witness reports of an explosion before the plane went down, the FBI sent agents to assist in the investigation, but there was no immediate indication of terrorism or sabotage, said Judy Orihuela, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Miami field office.

“It’s too soon to say whether we are going to get involved,” she said. “We’re just going to check it out.”

Sandy Rodriguez, 14, said he saw the plane flying low with white smoke trailing from it and flames coming from the bottom. The right wing then fell off as the plane went down behind a condominium tower on Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, he said.

“It exploded in the air, and one of the wings flew out of there. The other part of the plane was on fire, and it just went straight down,” said Maurice D’Giovianni, 42, a surfer who was in the water at the time.

Coast Guard spokesman Dana Warr also saw the crash from the Coast Guard office on Government Cut. “Everything looked normal. I saw the aircraft take off like it does every other time. I didn’t think anything of it when I saw the black smoke from the pier, until I then heard the Coast Guard alarms go off,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team to investigate.

The plane went down in Government Cut, a channel that cruise ships and freighters take past South Beach into the Port of Miami. The channel is up to 30 feet deep near the crash site, but parts of the plane could be seen in shallower areas.

The skies were cloudy, but there was no rain or lightning in the area at the time of the crash.

Coast Guardsmen and emergency workers wearing protective suits hauled bodies up from rescue boats, rushing to find victims before darkness fell. Law-enforcement speedboats, divers and helicopters took part in the search and were joined by others in private boats, on personal watercraft and on surfboards.

Chalk’s Ocean Airways flies between Miami and the Bahamas, using planes that take off and land on the water. Its seaplanes take off in view of the port and the multimillion-dollar homes that dot islands in the bay.

Founded by Arthur “Pappy” Chalk in 1919, the airline thrived during Prohibition, taking bootleggers, their customers and customs agents to Bimini. According to the airline, its most famous regular passenger was Ernest Hemingway, who flew to Bimini to go big-game fishing.

One of its planes was hijacked to Cuba in 1974, and the company has since had a policy of not carrying enough fuel to get to Havana.

Two years later, the airline was sold to Resorts International, which owned properties on Paradise Island. Donald Trump bought it in 1988 and sold it a few months later to Merv Griffin. The owner as of 1995 was Seth Atwood of United Capital Corp. of Illinois/Atwood Enterprises.

According to FlightSafe Consultants’ airline-safety Web site, Chalk’s Ocean Airways has had no known fatal accidents. Similarly, the NTSB database shows no fatal accidents for Chalk’s since 1982, when the database started.

The airline had no comment after the crash.

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