Seaplane crashes off Miami Beach: 19 killed

A seaplane crashed just off Miami Beach within sight of the city's high-rises, killing all 20 people aboard. Witnesses said the aircraft exploded in flames as it came down, and the FBI joined the investigation. Amateur video obtained by CNN showed the main part of the aircraft slamming into the water followed by a flaming object trailing thick black smoke. Scuba divers and rescuers in speedboats struggled to reach the victims, but as evening fell Monday, they found no sign that anyone survived. The Chalk's Ocean Airways plane, a twin-engine Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard, went down around 2:30 p.m. (1930 GMT) after taking off from Miami for the island of Bimini in the Bahamas, the Federal Aviation Administration said. It hit the water within sight of the beach.

The Coast Guard said 19 bodies were found. The 1940s-era plane was carrying two crew members and 18 passengers, including three infants, authorities said.

Bahamas Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchombe, who is also a member of parliament for Bimini, said on local television that 11 people aboard the plane were from Bimini, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Miami.

Because of the witness reports of an explosion, 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," Orihuela said. "We're just going to check it out." Chalk's is a small air carrier that is not required to conduct federal security screening of passengers and their luggage, said Dale Karlen, federal security director at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. With many schools already closed in advance of the holidays and Christmas week traditionally one of the biggest times of the year for tourism, the beach was relatively busy, and dozens of beachgoers saw the plane go down. Dozens more gathered to watch the rescue. As Coast Guard helicopters hovered over the crash site, some surfers remained in the water, only a few hundred feet away. Some surfers used their boards to rush toward the spot where the plane went down. 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, 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 an island in a channel known as Government Cut that cruise ships and freighters take past South Beach into the Port of Miami.

"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.

Coast Guard Capt. James Maes said the main part of the fuselage was submerged in about 35 feet (10.5 meters) of water that is subject to strong tidal currents because of the narrow ship channel. Divers were continuing to search after dark for the final victim.

Ship traffic in and out of the port will be suspended indefinitely, Maes added, including three large cruise ships that had been scheduled to depart Monday afternoon.

Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the initial investigation will focus on locating the plane's cockpit voice recorder and examining aircraft records. He said much of the wreckage, including the main fuselage, would likely be raised Tuesday. The skies were cloudy, but there was no rain or lightning in the area at the time of the crash. Garred Gadaon, 34, said his sister-in-law and her 13-year-old daughter were on the plane. "The Christmas holiday is a joyful holiday. We had a tragic death today with many of our family members and our friends. It doesn't seem real. Chalk's has always been a safe plane for us," he said while standing outside the Miami Beach Police Department, reports the AP. I.L.

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