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20 die as vintage seaplane crashes on way to Bahamas

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MIAMI, Florida – A vintage seaplane with 20 persons on board broke into at least two pieces and crashed Monday into the ocean off Miami, killing at least 19 persons aboard, authorities said.

The plane, which takes off and lands on the water, was flying from Miami to the Bahamas when the crash occurred at about 2:30 p.m., officials said.{{more}}

Amateur video showed what appeared to be the main fuselage slamming into the water, followed by a large ball of fire — possibly one of its wings. Beachgoers and vacationers could be seen just hundreds of yards from where the plane and the other piece hit.

“That’s a truly remarkable piece of film,” said Robert Francis, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

He said it “will now allow the NTSB to prioritize, a little bit, what they’re looking for in terms of the wreckage.”

Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion and seeing the plane break up.

One woman at the scene said the plane was flying “pretty low” and was “a little bit loud,” when, “all of a sudden, we just heard it blow up.”

“I saw two pieces, and it went down into the water,” she said. Another witness said he saw a wing come off, and “it exploded.”

The crash prompted an urgent search-and-rescue operation involving the Coast Guard, fire department and other emergency departments.

Three Coast Guard search vessels, aided by private boats and at least one helicopter, searched the waters. Television footage taken from the air showed divers in the water, with the submerged plane partially visible and part of the wreckage on a nearby rock jetty.

Coast Guard crews secured the submerged fuselage, while divers searched for possible survivors. By Monday evening, 19 bodies had been recovered, said Coast Guard Capt. James Mays.

“This is a tragic event,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Dana Warr told CNN.

The Grumman G-73 airplane, operated by Chalk’s Ocean Airways, was headed to the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. Airline officials said the plane had been carrying 20 persons: two pilots and 18 passengers, including three infants. However, a Coast Guard official later said the plane may have had a total of 19 people aboard, 17 passengers and two crew members.

The airline’s general manager, Roger Nair, told reporters the crash of Flight 101 was the company’s first involving passengers since it was founded in 1919.

“We are a close-knit, family airline, and most of our passengers have been our customers for an extended period of time,” he said.

NTSB records confirmed that the airline had never had a fatal accident with passengers on board before Monday. However, a Chalk’s plane crashed in March 1994 near Key West, Florida, killing the two pilots aboard. No passengers were on that plane.

Shortly after Monday’s crash, the Port of Miami was shut down, and cruise liners were diverted from the area so they would not interfere with the rescue operation, said Warr, who described seeing the plane as it took off.

“I didn’t think anything of it. I had seen this aircraft take off and land numerous times,” he said.

But then, he said, “I saw a dark, black plume of smoke, and then immediately after, the search-and-rescue alarm went off here on the base.”

“It really gives me chills to know that I saw this aircraft, and to think that everything was OK. And just seconds later, Coast Guard personnel are responding to this tragic event,” he said.