Crash of an Icon
Felix Ellis is alone now. His wife, Genevieve, isn't around to make his favorite bread pudding. She's not there to call him in the morning or to put a blanket on his lap so he won't catch a chill from the unseasonably cold wind that whips through the couple's tiny, unheated home on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.
Genevieve isn't there to call him by his childhood nickname Cornbread. Nor can she hear him tell the story of the name's origin: He sold his mother's pastries in the streets as a boy. Felix and Genevieve were married for 40 years, and she knew all of his stories.
Felix loved Genevieve because, in his words, she was "good and quiet." Felix, who is 72 years old and retired, is pretty quiet himself. He speaks in a lilting Bahamian patois; "this" and "that" are pronounced "dis" and "dat." He is a burly man, with fading brown skin, few bottom teeth, and a silvery, stubbly beard. He used to be a strapping construction worker Felix built his home with his own hands but arthritis in his right leg has all but idled him. These days he spends hours in a chair by the front door of the house, with a TV remote control and a telephone in arm's reach. A walker stands nearby. The small house is jammed with furniture, and its walls are lined with hastily placed photographs. Felix keeps the lights low at night when he watches TV.
Genevieve, a stout mother of five who always dressed in colorful, sensible matching skirts and jackets, would have brought order to the house and to Felix.
The last time he talked to her was December 18, 2005. He was in Nassau for a doctor's visit. She was in North Carolina at her niece's college graduation. The 64-year-old was also shopping in Fort Lauderdale for some last-minute Christmas bargains for the grandkids. She called that Sunday night to say she had reserved a seat on the first Chalk's seaplane leaving Fort Lauderdale in the morning.
"I'll see you in Nassau, Cornbread," she said. "Good night."
"Good night," he replied.
Chalk's is an enduring symbol of Miami, one filled with ingenuity and intrigue, with glamour and entrepreneurial spirit. The airline's early days are legendary.
In 1911 a Kentucky auto mechanic named Arthur "Pappy" Chalk stopped tinkering with cars long enough to help out a man named Tony Jannus. A renowned pilot of the day, Jannus had flown his seaplane north from Florida and made an unscheduled stop in Paducah, near the Illinois line. In exchange for the repairs Jannus gave Chalk flying lessons.
Soon Chalk was hooked on seaplanes. In 1917 a little more than a dozen years after the Wright brothers' historic first flight at Kitty Hawk he moved to Miami. He was 28 years old.
Two years later he opened a seaplane charter company. Chalk charged five dollars for sightseeing tours and $15 for lessons in flying the three-seat Stinson Voyager. Passengers lined up at Chalk's terminal, which was an umbrella next to the dock of the Royal Palm Hotel on Biscayne Bay, at the end of Flagler Street.
A few years went by and Chalk bought a bigger plane. He capitalized on Prohibition by flying to Bimini, a tiny island just 50 miles away. The passengers were fun-loving, wealthy folks who wanted to drink hooch and arrange for illegal shipments to the United States.
In those early days Chalk was the company's lone pilot, often flying up to twelve hours a day. Dozens of Bimini residents greeted the plane upon its arrival; the islanders would wade into the electric-blue sea and carry the passengers, piggyback, to dry land.
In 1932 Chalk married a woman named Lillie Mae who helped him run the business. Together they branched out into more charter flights. The next year he flew to Cuba to pick up ousted dictator Gerardo Machado and ferried him to safety in Miami but not before dodging a volley of bullets in Havana.
The following twenty years were good for the company. Ernest Hemingway, Al Capone, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall were all Chalk's seaplane passengers. In 1940 Chalk built a terminal building out of coral rock on Watson Island, a newly developed landfill. He bought more seaplanes and flew reconnaissance missions during World War II.
Lillie Mae died in 1964. Chalk retired from flying with a perfect record: 16,800 hours flown with no fatalities.
For the next three-and-a-half decades, the company soared, failed, soared again, and found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. It changed hands countless times; owners included companies headed by Merv Griffin and Donald Trump. Planes were upgraded, refurbished, and put into storage. A few new routes, such as one to Key West, were added, then removed. Bimini and Watson Island were the only consistent destinations.
In 1984 the airline received worldwide exposure from an unlikely source. A new cop drama named Miami Vice highlighted the city's most glamorous assets in its opening credits: Bentleys, breasts, beaches, and a gleaming white Chalk's seaplane gliding over impossibly blue water. Even though the plane was 40-odd years old, it shone as if it were brand new.
The Chalk's Grumman Mallard plane had a cameo in the show's pilot episode. As Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" throbbed in the background, cops Crockett and Tubbs drove like hell through Miami streets in a black Ferrari. The pair arrived on Watson Island as the song ended only to see their quarry, a smug trafficker, board the seaplane. The propeller whirred to life; the drug dealer smiled. Then the plane's tail and the name appeared across the screen: Chalk's.
An icon was born.
All the glitzy publicity couldn't save the airline. In 1999, after struggling for years, the company finally ended up in bankruptcy court.
In August of that year Miami businessman Jim Confalone bought Chalk's for $925,000. He sold his oceanfront home in Maine to finance the purchase.
At the time the company was operating with just two leased seaplanes and 35 employees. Still it was the only commercial airline in the world that employed Mallards as passenger aircraft all the others were used privately or for sightseeing. Confalone immediately bought five more Mallard seaplanes; he wanted the company to remain true to its roots. "I feel I've been entrusted to take care of this thing," he told South Florida newspapers. "These large seaplanes landing in Miami are what the cable cars are to San Francisco in terms of a tourist attraction."
Confalone seemed to be the right man for the job. After serving as an airplane technician in the navy, he arrived in Miami in 1965 with $50 in his pocket. After flying 26 years for Eastern Airlines, he owned a ski resort in Maine, car dealerships in Miami, and assorted other businesses in South Florida.
Two years later Chalk's was still operating under marginal circumstances. Only three planes were working. The airline had just four stops: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Paradise Island, and Bimini. Though Confalone had big plans, including travel to Japan and Havana, at the turn of the millennium his most important customers remained the Bimini residents who used the seaplanes as a lifeline to the outside world.
Bimini seems exotic a British outpost in the middle of the Atlantic but it is really a small town of 1600 people who are generally related by blood, marriage, or both. Most of the locals live in a settlement called Alice Town on North Bimini. (Sparsely populated South Bimini is actually separated by a 150-yard channel). Locals' houses, a few stores, and a handful of hotels line the one main road through the island. These days there are few jobs outside of tourism and during any given year, residents scrape to get by. Many young people leave.
Everything on the island milk, mufflers, or stuffed animals is expensive because it must be imported; shipping costs can increase prices tenfold. Chalk's helped keep costs down, islanders insist. "The only thing Chalk's wouldn't bring on the plane was a car," says Bimini resident Shannon Bullard, a man in his forties with a wide smile and animated eyes. "As long as guys could lift it and get it in the door, they would fly it to Bimini."
Bullard, a charter boat captain and amateur pilot, said that he would give Chalk's pilots ten dollars in the morning to go to the hardware store in Florida for a needed boat part. That evening the pilot would hand him the part and exact change.
September 11 changed all that. United States Customs cracked down on cargo, and immigration agents became more strict. In 2004 the City of Miami and Confalone clashed over the Watson Island terminal. Confalone said that it was difficult to take off and land the planes because of all the nearby helicopters. The city was concerned about security at the nearby port. So Chalk's relocated its headquarters and terminal to Fort Lauderdale.
Chalk's planes hadn't had many problems before Monday, December 19, 2005, but there had been a few. In 1994 two pilots didn't drain the bilge in Key West. The plane was too heavy and crashed. Both pilots were killed; those were the first fatalities in the company's 80-year history. Five years later on a windy day, a plane made a hard landing in rough waters in Nassau and injured three passengers from Florida.
Though no one expected a repeat of those incidents on that December day fifteen months ago, the weather was a little strange. Thick and unsual fog covered the Fort Lauderdale airport where Genevieve Ellis awaited her 8:40 a.m. flight home. She eyed the tiny, 58-year-old white seaplane with purple trim.
Genevieve was a patient woman, not given to complaints or flashes of anger, so it is unlikely that she was annoyed by the delay. She probably sat in a chair to wait quietly, and maybe pulled out a book to pass the time.
At around 1:30 p.m. the passengers were given the go-ahead to board. Folks stuffed duffel bags and boxes of Christmas toys into the cargo hold. Genevieve boarded along with fifteen other passengers and the plane's two pilots. There was no assigned seating, but Genevieve sat next to her sister, Salome Rolle, who had gone with her to the graduation and on the shopping trip. The pair sat together on the right side of the plane.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
On a recent February day it seemed everyone was talking about those dreams. People also described crash victims visiting them in their sleep, night after night. Mothers, they say, come to daughters and kiss them to sleep, wives appear to their husbands for another embrace. Genevieve, always a practical lady, has given Felix some advice during her nighttime visits.
"Don't care what nobody say," she told him during the dream. "Take care of yourself. Don't worry about me."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.