Crash of an Icon

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

Jones felt her knees buckle. As word spread through each pastel-color house and in every tiny store on the island, Jones again went home. She began to pray. "I took to bed," she said. "I couldn't get up for a long time."

About that same time in Nassau, Felix Ellis sat at his daughter's home and wondered why he hadn't heard from Genevieve. She was scheduled to arrive in Bimini around 9:00 a.m. and hop on another flight to Nassau. But she hadn't called. He eased his large frame into a chair and turned on the television.

Three o'clock in the afternoon came and went, and still nothing from Genevieve. A family friend called. "Put your TV on Channel 7," she told Felix. "A Chalk's plane crashed, but we don't know who was on it."

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.

Initial reports were that the plane had taken off from Miami for Nassau. Felix tried to convince himself that his wife wasn't on board. He tried calling the house in Bimini. No Genevieve.

Ellis was glued to the 6:00 p.m. news. To his surprise, Genevieve's 46-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Geraldine Pyfrom, appeared on the screen. She had also been in Florida. "My mommy is on that flight," she said through her tears.

That's how Felix found out that his wife of 40 years, the love of his life, died in a plane crash. All twenty aboard perished.

Soon divers swarmed the mess and the Coast Guard closed down the busy Port of Miami. Genevieve's was the first body to be identified, because her smart-looking clothes were the most recognizable and intact. All of the passengers but one died while strapped into their chairs; it is believed that Sergio Danguillecourt tried to escape by undoing his seat belt. It's unclear whether he jumped off the plane or was thrown out. His body was the last one recovered, four days later by a fisherman near Key Biscayne — nine miles from the crash site and the other bodies.

The next few weeks were a haze of grief-filled memorials and funerals both on Bimini and in Florida. Christmas was all but canceled.

Chalk's owner, Jim Confalone, grounded his planes, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent teams of investigators to inspect the wreckage. The plane's voice recorder, otherwise known as a "black box," was recovered, but it was mangled and useless.

Within a month of the tragedy lawyers from South Florida descended upon Bimini. Because there were eleven islanders on the flight — and because those victims, like everyone in Bimini, had large, extended families — the lawyers represented dozens of people. There were twelve minor children who had lost one or both parents in the crash.

A dark-haired man with piercing black eyes named John Ruiz was one of those lawyers. The 45-year-old personal injury lawyer ended up representing the families of six of the twenty dead passengers.

Ruiz's profession has been good to him: among other things, he owns a nine-story building worth $5.7 million in Little Havana and a 65-foot powerboat. He was pretty familiar with Chalk's and Bimini; he often took his wife and three children aboard his boat for weekend trips. If the Gulf Stream waters were rough, he would put the family on a Chalk's seaplane back to South Florida.

"In my mind, I thought it was the safest type of plane," he says.

But no more. At the beginning of 2006 Ruiz and his paralegals combed through crash evidence, starting with the autopsy photos of the victims. "I've never seen anything as horrible as that," he said. "It was like if someone had put a stick of dynamite and ignited it and blew their entire head off. I saw a photo of an infant with his chest cavity blown wide open with the organs exposed."

Ruiz was even more horrified when he received five years' worth of maintenance records for Chalk's planes. In 2002 the company had been given a warning for releasing a plane that was not airworthy or equipped as required. Though Chalk's hadn't reported its finances to the City of Miami for years, records show the company had lost a total of $1.5 million in 2001 and 2002. Dun and Bradstreet, a Wall Street investment analysis company, reported in 2002 that Chalk's was a "high risk" for vendors.

In 2005 Confalone tried to sell the airline. A $4.3 million deal fell through, as did a deal for $10 million with former racing promoter Ralph Sanchez and Miami Commissioner Art Teele (that same year, Teele killed himself in the lobby of the Miami Herald).

There had also been a number of repairs to the ill-fated plane, said Ruiz, especially to the right wing. In June 2005 the NTSB released a preliminary report, saying that there was a "serious fatigue crack" on the plane's right wing. The investigators discovered "light to moderate" corrosion where the wing met the body of the plane, as well as some popped rivets. Similar corrosion had been found in 1992, Ruiz noted, but Chalk's failed to X-ray the area to detect the fractures. Someone had screwed in a bolt where the right wing met the body of the aircraft at an angle; this may have allowed water to seep in and corrode the area. Adding to this, the seaplane was retrofitted with new turbine engines. This gave the plane more horsepower and possibly added more stress.

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