Crash of an Icon

Once a lifeline and a symbol, Chalk's delivered death

Genevieve and Salome were surrounded by neighbors and friends from Bimini, all of whom were headed home after Christmas shopping. In a nearby pair of seats sat Sabrina and Barto Dean, a young couple who lived just a few doors down from Genevieve and Felix. Barto worked at the island's only hardware store. The couple held their four-month-old baby girl, Sabre'a, in their arms.

There was Jackie Levarity and her daughter Niesha, the recent valedictorian of the island's high school class. Nearby sat Don Smith, the dockmaster at the Bimini Big Game Club. He, too, was flying with a baby — Jervis, his chubby-cheeked, fifteen-month-old grandson. Also on board: Sophia Sherman, a teacher at the island's only school. Genevieve knew her because she had worked at the school for 37 years as a janitor. Sophia had her five-month-old daughter, Bethany, with her.

Five Americans who were going to Bimini on vacation filled the other seats.

Baggage tags from Bimini
Tamara Lush
Baggage tags from Bimini
After landing in Bimini, Chalk's seaplanes taxied past the squat, two-story building that served as a terminal.
Tamara Lush
After landing in Bimini, Chalk's seaplanes taxied past the squat, two-story building that served as a terminal.

No stewardesses greeted the passengers; it was too small of a plane for that. Paul DeSanctis was one of the two pilots who said hello to everyone. He had started with Chalk's only eight months before and was in a good mood despite the delay. The other pilot, Michelle Marks, a short, normally smiling woman who loved seaplanes and never missed a chance to pose for a photo next to one, was more somber. Five days earlier she had filed for divorce. Everyone buckled their seat belts for takeoff.

Flight 101 was on its way.

Instead of going straight to Bimini, there was a detour: The plane would stop at Watson Island in Miami to pick up two passengers.

It had been months since Chalk's had stopped there, but for some reason the plane made a stop. No one's really sure why, and Chalk's executives aren't talking.

Perhaps it was because of the prominence of the two passengers, Sergio Danguillecourt and his wife, Jacqueline. The 42-year-old Danguillecourt was the great-great-grandson of Don Facundo Bacardi, the Cuban founder of the world's largest rum company. Danguillecourt, who had worked for Bacardi in Spain for years and helped on the company's Bacardi Breezer campaign in the mid-Nineties, had also served on the company's board of directors since 1992. When the dashing businessman wasn't attending to those duties or doing charity work for his Catholic church, he loved to drive his classic Porsche and scuba dive. The couple lived on nearby Fisher Island. Sergio and Jackie were on their way to Bimini to buy a 68-foot yacht; they had left their two sons behind.

After the esteemed pair boarded at about 2:30 p.m., the seaplane took off toward the east, skimming the water. Witnesses would later report that the plane had to climb more quickly and sharply than normal to avoid a large cargo ship. It was the plane's 39,743rd flight.

Seconds after takeoff, as the plane buzzed along at 100 miles per hour, just clearing Fisher Island on the right, and the Coast Guard station and the condominiums that overlook the Government Cut jetty on the left, something horrendous happened. The right wing cracked, then snapped off.

Fuel gushed and the wing ignited, creating a fiery ball. The rest of the plane — which was intact and carrying the passengers — plummeted into the water, followed by the blazing wing. It took only a few short seconds for the plane to hit the water.

Because it was a bright, beautiful afternoon, about 100 surfers were in the ocean just north of the rock jetty. Guys in black wet suits tried to swim toward the downed plane while feeling the heat from the fire. Nearby boats quickly motored to the crash site. Within a minute or two, the body of the plane had come to rest 35 feet below the surface on the ocean floor. It left a slick, oily sheen on top of the water.

Alex Casal, one of the surfers, said he saw the plane wobble, then list to one side before hitting the water. "I turned around and I see this plane making like a weird noise," said Casal, a 29-year-old day trader. "[An] engine totally exploded and the wing totally fell off. There was an echoing öBOOM' and it hit the water hard."

Fifty miles away on Bimini, no one was particularly worried. The planes were often delayed. Letitia Jones, the 52-year-old niece of Felix and Genevieve Ellis, settled into a seat inside the Chalk's terminal, a boxy, white stucco building on the south end of the island. A big woman who wears red kerchiefs over her black hair and keeps a Bible nearby wherever she goes, she had shuttled back and forth to and from the terminal when the flight was delayed. The grandmother of five was planning a quick trip to Florida to buy some Christmas gifts, and to stock up on goods for the general store that she owned across the street from her house. She was accompanied by her three-year-old granddaughter, Lamadria.

Around 1:30 p.m. Letitia noticed that the employees behind the counter were answering call after call. They spoke in hushed tones. Then a friend ran into the terminal. "Tisha, come here," her friend said. "Ain't no plane coming. The TV say the plane crashed."

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