December 19, 2005

At least 19 die in Miami seaplane crash

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - A seaplane packed with passengers crashed
in flames off Miami Beach and sank into the U.S. city's main
shipping channel on Monday, killing at least 19 people,
authorities said.

The twin-engine seaplane crashed just off the southern tip
of Miami Beach after taking off for the Bahamian island of
Bimini with 18 passengers, including three infants, and two
crew, according to Roger Nair, general manager of Chalk's Ocean
Airways, which operated the ill-fated aircraft.

Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez told a news
conference 19 bodies had been recovered from the crash site.

Witnesses said the plane seemed to explode in the sky
before falling into Government Cut, the entry to the Port of
Miami, where it came to rest in shallow water next to a jetty.

"There was a huge explosion in the sky, a big ball of
smoke," one witness, Frank Amadeo, told Miami's Channel 7
television. "It just sort of spiraled downward," he added.

Surfers who saw the plane fly overhead as they waited for
waves off Miami Beach's Art Deco hotel and restaurant district
said the aircraft made a screeching sound as it came down, one
wing on fire.

"The left wing was in flames, a big flame and then we hear
boom and the whole plane was on fire. It went straight into the
water," said Vincent DiLella, a 19-year-old surfer.

"It looked like it (the fire) was going along the left wing
and then suddenly it took over the whole plane," he told


The crash site, near some of Miami Beach's newest
condominium towers, was surrounded by Coast Guard and other
rescue vessels. Scuba divers descended to the plane just
visible under the murky green sea surface to recover the

The Coast Guard said the channel was closed to shipping.

Planes operated by Chalk's are a familiar sight in Miami,
swooping low over the shipping channel to splash to a landing
near Watson Island, just off the downtown area.

Nair, the airline's general manager, told reporters there
had been no fatalities involving passengers on Chalk's since it
was founded in 1919.

The airline has operated between Miami and the Bahamas
since 1919, when Prohibition was in full force and rum-running
from the Bahamas provided a steady income, Chalk's said on its
Web site.

The company said novelist Ernest Hemingway was one of its
first regulars, flying to Bimini for big game fishing. It had
also flown notorious gangster Al Capone and Hollywood greats
like Errol Flynn.

The company's fleet consists of Grumman G-73T Turbine
Mallard twin-engine aircraft, powered by Pratt & Whitney-Canada
PT-6 turbine engines. The planes are capable of carrying 17
passengers at a cruising speed of 200 mph (324 kph), the
company's Web site says.

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Michael Christie)