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'We Lost a Lot of Good People' in Crash

Bimini mourns the deaths of 12 islanders. They are among 20 killed in the plane crash off Miami Beach.

December 21, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — As friends and relatives of crash victims grieved, salvage crews on Tuesday recovered the wing of a seaplane that investigators said broke off the fuselage before it slammed into the water, killing all 20 on board.

Twelve of the dead were on their way home to Bimini in the Bahamas, 50 miles from where the plane went down.

"The community is basically closed down today," said Lloyd Edgecombe, a member of the district council. "People are at home and with friends and family, hugging and kissing and crying.... We lost a lot of good people yesterday, man. A lot of good people."

Edgecombe said he knew all 12.

Among those killed in Monday's crash of Chalk's Ocean Airways Flight 101 were a former valedictorian of Bimini All-Age School, a preschool teacher and her young daughter.

Sophia Sherman and 1-year-old Bethany had made it onto the flight because Edgecombe's 10-year-old son had given up his seat.

"Sophia left her husband and two boys behind," Edgecombe said.

Many passengers on the doomed Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard had gone to Miami to do their Christmas shopping and would have been flying home with gifts for their loved ones, said Oral Ellis, pastor of Born Again Full Gospel Baptist Church.

"On Sunday evening, my wife and oldest daughter, youngest son and grandson who is in college were on that same flight," Ellis said. "This could have been any one of us."

On Monday, the preacher lost an aunt, Genevieve Ellis, a retired school janitor in her early 60s; her younger sister also was on the flight.

The minister of tourism, Obediah H. Wilchombe, was quoted by a Bahamian newspaper as saying that never had so many of his countrymen perished in such a manner.

"This is so sad, not only for the community of Bimini, but for the country," Wilchombe told the Freeport News Reporter. "This is a small country and we know each other."

On Tuesday, Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie visited Bimini to offer condolences to its 1,800 people. Local clergy went door to door to assist the grieving.

"You can offer prayer, and offer support, and that's all," Ellis said. "The difficult time is going to be when the remains come home."

Another passenger on the seaplane, Sergio Danguillecourt, was a member of the board of directors of Bacardi Ltd. and great-great-grandson of the rum distillery's cofounder -- Don Facundo Bacardi -- the company said in a statement Tuesday. "This loss leaves us all deeply saddened," said Facundo L. Bacardi, chairman of the board.

Two crew members and 18 passengers died when the seaplane broke apart moments after takeoff and plunged into waters directly south of Miami Beach. Nineteen bodies were recovered; the 20th victim remained unaccounted for.

By midday Tuesday, FBI and Miami-Dade police divers had finished photographing the wreck of the twin-engine turboprop, which lay in 25 feet of water in Government Cut, the main ship channel connecting the Port of Miami to the Atlantic Ocean. Using a special camera to see through murk and silt, the divers found "a fairly mangled aircraft," said Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The divers were unable to recover the flight data recorder in the plane's badly damaged tail, he said.

"We've done as much as we can in the water," Rosenker said. "It is now up to the salvage team to get this aircraft onto the barge, moved over to a secure location, so we can begin the actual investigative phase."

By nightfall, the wing had been hoisted out of the channel. But Coast Guard officials said the remainder of the wreckage wouldn't be recovered until today. Rosenker said the job must be done carefully so that pieces of the plane didn't fragment as they were brought to the surface.

NTSB investigators went to Chalk's Fort Lauderdale headquarters to secure the seaplane's maintenance and flight records, Rosenker said. The activities of the pilot, who had not been identified, were to be plotted for the 72 hours before the flight. Accident investigators were even open to the possibility that the aircraft had hit a flying pelican.

"At this point nothing is off the table," Rosenker said.

FBI officials said there was no indication that the crash was the result of terrorism or criminal intent. Despite the seaplane's age, Rosenker said, there was no reason to believe Chalk's fleet was not airworthy.

Rescue and recovery operations after the crash closed Government Cut and delayed the sailing of three cruise ships, but the Coast Guard on Tuesday announced that the ship channel would reopen temporarily overnight to commercial and recreational traffic.

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