Crash of an Icon

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"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.

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