Crash of an Icon

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

In the year before the crash three pilots had quit the company because of concerns about poor maintenance, according to federal documents. Those documents also revealed that pilot Michelle Marks, who died in the crash, was concerned about the same problem. "Michelle was becoming scared and talked about maintenance concerns all the time," her husband told federal aviation investigators. "They were having close calls that were becoming more frequent."

It all meant one thing to Ruiz and the other lawyers. "We saw a consistent pattern of poor maintenance and poor maintenance record-keeping," Ruiz said. "Just days prior to the accident, pilots reported fuel leaking from the wings, of the plane that went down and others not involved in the accident. [These] other two planes, in my opinion, were flying time bombs."

Confalone did not respond to repeated calls for comment for this article. Nor has he publicly spoken about the incident in the fourteen months after the crash. He may have been trying to keep his company solvent. The airline was so financially weak that when AIG, its insurance company, gave Chalk's $450,000 to help the victims' families, the company had to use half the money to pay its employees, Ruiz said.

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.

It took about one year for AIG to reach a settlement with the victims' families, an unusually quick resolution in the often slow-moving world of personal injury claims. The final case, a lawsuit filed by the family of co-pilot Michelle Marks, was quietly closed just a few weeks ago on February 10. In the end the families will split $51 million — after lawyers' fees, of course.

On most days Felix Ellis sits in his sagging chair in his living room, where framed eight-by-ten photos of Genevieve line the walls. A colorful scene of a sun and palm trees was painted by his grandson for Genevieve's funeral, which was fifteen months ago.

"I miss her in the daytime," he says slowly. "I used to give her a call at 5:00 p.m. every day. Sometimes, I sit right here, all day, looking at her pictures."

Solace comes in television and the Bible. "God will never leave you alone," Felix maintains. "He will stick with you through thick and thin."

Felix isn't eager to read the final NTSB report, which is slated for release in the next few weeks. He shrugs when asked whether he will take another Chalk's seaplane flight — a moot point, really, because the company's aircraft are still grounded and may be for good. The FAA and the Bahamian government haven't approved Chalk's plan to begin flying the seaplanes again. Chalk's started to operate charter planes in February of this year, land-based aircraft to Bimini, and people are reluctantly boarding the flights.

Felix won't talk about how much money he received — mostly because under the settlement agreement, he and the others agreed not to publicly discuss the sum. He scoffs at the idea that the insurance money has changed him. It's clear from looking around his house that he hasn't invested in anything new. Indeed there's no sign that he's spent any of the tens of thousands of dollars he likely received.

"If they came to me with $9 million and said, öMr. Ellis, this is yours,' that don't bring my wife back," he says.

In reality, he says, the money has caused more problems than it's solved, which is true for many of the Bimini families who lost a relative in the crash. Genevieve's son from a previous marriage is angry he didn't receive any of the settlement cash. This is not unusual, because under Florida law, the surviving spouse receives the money in such personal injury cases, not the victim's adult children.

"My stepson is going around town talking to everyone instead of coming here and talking to me," Felix said. He's also aware that others on the island whisper about how his youngest son is now driving a new car. He doesn't care. He's doing the best he can.

Folks on the island may gossip and squabble, but they also help take care of him. Letitia Jones, Felix's niece, often sends one of her grandkids over to his house with a plate of fried fish for dinner. "He is a good man," she says, "and he was a good husband."

Letitia spends a lot of time thinking about the crash and how she came so close to boarding a doomed plane. She and others on the island swear the mishap was foreshadowed in the dreams of two Bimini passengers who were aboard Flight 101 when it crashed. Jackie Levarity allegedly envisioned five caskets lined up outside the island's Catholic church — the number of Catholic victims from Bimini. And Sabrina Dean dreamed of being in a plane crash. "They had all kinda dreams," Letitia insists. "If you had a dream like that, you wouldn't get on the plane."

Yet they did. Like several Bimini residents, Jones believes that the two women should have heeded the message in their dreams.

"God tried to show them!" Letitia cries, slapping her hand down on her dark wood dining room table. Three Bibles sitting nearby shake from the force of the slap. "Show them! But they didn't pay no attention. You gotta pay attention when God speaks."

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