19 dead in Miami plane crash

Seaplane plunges into waterway during takeoff on flight to Bimini

3 victims are infants


MIAMI -- A propeller-driven seaplane with 20 people on board caught fire and crashed off Miami Beach shortly after taking off yesterday for the Bahamas fishing resort of Bimini.

Rescue workers recovered 19 bodies by early evening, in an operation carried out with the submerged plane visible under water. Most of the bodies were found in the fuselage, still strapped to their seats. The passengers included three infants.

The plane was 58 years old, a twin-engine Grumman G-73 Turbo Mallard, manufactured in 1947, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Carrying 18 passengers and two crewmembers, the Chalk's Ocean Airways plane took off from its base on Watson Island and quickly ran into trouble.

Witnesses said smoke streamed from the plane as it traveled a few hundred feet over Government Cut, the channel leading to the Port of Miami. The plane banked to the left, lost a wing and spiraled into the water. Witnesses reported a loud explosion before the plane went down.

Grim-faced officials from Miami Beach confirmed they recovered 19 bodies. They said they received the first call about the crash at 2:40 p.m. from two lifeguards stationed in South Beach.

The lifeguards raced to the crash on surfboards and personal watercraft. Boaters and people using personal watercraft assisted in the rescue effort, said Miami Fire Chief Floyd Jordan.

Divers from the Miami Beach and Miami-Dade fire departments arrived moments later. They found the rest of the bodies inside the fuselage, still in seat belts, Jordan said.

The cause of the crash of Flight 101 has not been determined. The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team of investigators from Washington.

Before yesterday's crash, FAA records show four incidents involving the plane going back to 1973 but no fatalities or injuries.

Founded in 1919, Chalk's claims to be the oldest surviving airline in the United States. The company's Web site notes that in the early years, "Rum-running was a source of bountiful business for Chalk's and the company did not discriminate among passengers, carrying not only smugglers, but also the lawmen chasing them."

Later, the company ferried celebrities to the Bahamas, including Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Howard Hughes and Ernest Hemingway, who flew to Bimini for the big-game fishing.

Chalk's helped create the modern image of Miami when one of its planes appeared in the opening of the 1980s TV show Miami Vice. But the company underwent hard times in the past few years, as modern airliners sapped business from its fleet of seaplanes.

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