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CNN BREAKING NEWS
Fourteen People Confirmed Dead in Plane Crash off Miami
Aired December 19, 2005 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.
Happening now, breaking news. A deadly plane crash off Miami Beach. A search for survivors still underway. It's 4:00 p.m. in Florida, and we're live watching Coast Guard and other rescue crews in action.
Also this hour, the president vows to keep spying on terror suspects here in the United States. Mr. Bush was grilled about secret wiretaps during a White House news conference. Can he convince Americans that what he's doing is legal?
And America's top diplomat in a tough situation. Defending the president on domestic spying and on the situation in Iraq. My one-on- one interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this hour.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Up first this hour breaking news out of Florida, South Florida specifically near Miami Beach. At least 12 people are dead after a sea plane crashed off Miami Beach. The plane was leaving Miami for the Bahamas. Shortly after takeoff, it went down in the water.
A massive Coast Guard search and rescue operation is now underway. Eighteen people were on board, including the two pilots, 13 adults and three infants. The Port of Miami is now closed and FBI investigators are heading to the scene.
Let's go right to CNN Producer Kim Segal. She's in Miami. She's got more on what we know--Kim.
KIM SEGAL, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Wolf, that's right. The rescue effort is continuing on the area just south of Miami Beach where this plane had gone down. There's 18 people that were aboard this plane and, unfortunately, so far, 12 people are dead, but they're looking and hoping for more survivors.
BLITZER: Are authorities giving any indication of what may have happened? There's one eyewitness who says he heard some sort of explosion and then saw the plane begin to go down.
SEGAL: No, at this point, they don't know. There are other eyewitnesses that have said that they saw a dark plume of smoke shortly after takeoff and that was it.
BLITZER: What do we know about these sea planes and this airline that operates this route between Miami and the Bahamas?
SEGAL: Well, this particular airline, Chalks, has been in business and flying since 1919 down here. There's a lot of places and islands in the area that don't have air strips. So they just use the sea planes to land. They've been in business a long time down here, and it's a usual route of transportation for people who are going to the outer islands.
BLITZER: It's officially called Chalk's Ocean Airways. And we're told, Kim, it was founded in 1919. It's floating planes take off the water. And we've seen these kinds of operations, these kinds of flights. Certainly they have been featured on various television programs.
And it's a regularly scheduled route between Miami and the Bahamas. A lot of tourists and others simply trying to get away from Miami, head over to the Bahamas, I assume.
SEGAL: That's correct. These flights, they have a few of them a day that go over to not just the Bahamas but other islands, like I said, some of the smaller islands without air strips. It's a common mode of transportation down here, and this airline has been around a long time.
BLITZER: Well, Kim, we're getting multiple feeds in from our various affiliates in Miami. We're showing our viewers the pictures. It looks like the Coast Guard, other rescue workers are on the scene.
We are told, is this correct, that they have recovered 12 bodies? Is that right?
SEGAL: Well, what they're telling us now, that 12 people have been confirmed dead in this plane accident. And there's 18 people total on board. So they're still out there. They actually have, the Coast Guard has a 41-foot rescue boat, a bunch of divers, a 27-foot rescue boat, and they're still hoping for some survivors out of this crash.
BLITZER: You've been in Miami for a long time, Kim, covering these kinds of stories. Any similar kind of accidents come to mind involving these sea planes?
SEGAL: No, Wolf. Not at all. Not right off the top of my head. I can remember some pictures because unlike this one where the wreckage you don't see just a plane that's been submerged.
Some of our viewers may have remembered a couple years ago, there was this extraordinary picture of an actual plane that went down. It was a cargo plane. And you saw the whole plane in the water because the water is so clear. But looking at these pictures, no, I haven't seen anything like it, I have to tell you.
BLITZER:: And these are propeller driven sea planes. And obviously, they're very small. They're almost like commuter flights, but they do take off and land on the water. And, literally, a lot of people were in South Beach in the Miami Beach area and presumably a lot of people were watching what was going on. Certainly a lot more are probably watching this search and rescue operation.
SEGAL: That's correct. This took place, the crash scene is just south of Miami Beach. It's right off the point. It's called Government's Cut. And it's a big tourist area. There's a park down there, and the beach down there is a beach that is frequented by tourists. So I'm sure there will be a lot of people who unfortunately witnessed this event.
BLITZER: Kim, stand by for a moment.
CNN's Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's watching this with us. And these are dramatic pictures, Tom, as you can see, and our viewers can see. The search and rescue operation underway, 12 bodies have been recovered. Eighteen people on board.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, terrible thing. And you can tell by looking at it the water's not terribly deep there.
Let's look at where this happened. There's Florida, obviously, sticking down there. This is the plane crash site. And you see those big jetties of rock, which we keep seeing showing up in these pictures, in the wider pictures.
Going out into the water, you can see how pale that is, not deep water in these areas. You know, sometimes you talk about 15, 20, 30 feet. Now necessarily way down, but still, a big problem if a plane goes into it.
Chalk's Ocean Airways, the place in question is inland. If you go down this waterway, this is where they are based. So this is presumably where all of these pilots would be staging out of most of the time. but this is the general area we're talking about. Not a whole lot of deep water there.
A lot of air traffic just, as Kim said. This is the way people get around there because it certainly helps you with small islands, all sorts of places you might want to go that don't have an air strip.
BLITZER: Tom, I want you to hold on for a second.
Bob Francis, former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is joining us on the phone. Bob, thanks very much. Give us your initial thoughts when you see this story unfold.
ROBERT FRANCIS, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN: Oh, well, I think that, you know, there's a fair amount of this kind of traffic that goes back and forth between southern Florida and the islands. So it's not unusual to have a commercial operation going on. These are obviously certificated aircraft by the FAA. Float planes are not used a lot, but they are there.
One thing I've sort of been listening to your coverage, and I would say that be very careful about witness statements. I mean, sometimes witnesses are very good, but it's not hard and fast and people will say I saw a fire on the left hand engine, and it will turn out there wasn't any fire at all. So I'm not saying the people weren't right. I'm just saying that when somebody talks about an explosion or black smoke, it may or may not turn out to be significant.
But obviously, the Coast Guard is there. The NTSB will be very quickly on its way from Washington with representation both from the board and from the FAA. And then they'll be representation from the airline. But the NTSB will probably be there pretty quickly on an FAA airplane, and they will take over running the investigation. And all the parties that are there, including the Coast Guard, will be part of the investigation and will be helping them out.
BLITZER: Bob, that's excellent advice about not necessarily assuming that eyewitnesses have precisely the right impression, the right information. In fact, one eyewitness spoke out just a few moments ago, Bob. I want you to listen to what was said. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I seen a plane coming across, coming through Government Cut, make a left-hand turn, the wing came off, exploded. They pulled one body out already. They said there were 17 people on board. Miami Beach Fire Rescue, ambulance, they were there. They jumped in the water. They helped people out.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The plane was flying pretty low next to the freight ship. And it was a little bit loud. We were kind of looking and thought it was an interesting picture or whatever. I didn't take a picture, and then it goes along to the pier and all of a sudden we just heard it blow up, and I saw two pieces, and it went down into the water.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you make of that, Bob? And We're going to put some pictures up. We've got some pictures coming up, the fuselage, you can see the wheel, I think. There you see some pictures courtesy our affiliate WPLG in Miami.
But divers clearly on the scene looking for bodies I assume, Bob. You heard those two eyewitnesses. What do you make of that?
FRANCIS: Well, I think that, you know, you've got two eyewitnesses. What I heard could be construed as contradictory. On the other hand, maybe it could be interpreted in a way when someone, the professional, questions them about, you know, how they saw it and asks the right questions. It may not be contradictory or it may be partially contradictory.
So the NTSB will be extraordinarily interested if that young woman has some film in the camera.
BLITZER: On what she picked up.
FRANCIS: Absolutely. BLITZER: You say these small planes, these sea planes, are certificated aircraft. What does that mean exactly?
FRANCIS: Well, that means that in order--if it is a commercial operation, they have to have a part 135 certificate from the FAA to operate a commercial operation like that.
BLITZER: It is a commercial operation like that.
BLITZER: It is a commercial operation. It's Chalk's Ocean Airways, which was founded in 1919 and flies people from Miami to the Bahamas and presumably elsewhere as well.
FRANCIS: That's quite extraordinary that they've been around since 1919. There aren't many airlines in the world that have been around that long.
BLITZER: Talk to us a little bit -- I don't know how much work you've done with these sea planes.
How safe are they, their track record? Because we've seen them, of course, on television. We've seen -- I've never flown in one myself.
But what kind of track record? How safe are they?
FRANCIS: Well, you know, I'd say they're, you know, they're safe aircraft if they're safely operated.
It's like any kind of an aircraft. You can't operate these kinds of airplanes if the seas are high or if the winds are particularly difficult. But that applies to conditions for land-based airplanes also. You know, you don't want to land in thunderstorms. You don't want to land when the elements aren't good or whatever it is.
So if they're operated in a proper manner, they're safe. And there are fairly -- you know, I think commercial float plane operations like this, if you look at the entirety of the U.S. system, are fairly rare. But they do tend to be in Southern Florida. There are air taxi operations in Northwest I know, in Seattle.
So, you know, it's not a rare bird, but it's not something you see all the time.
BLITZER: Bob, if you could stay with us for a moment.
Our meteorologist Chad Myers is joining us as well.
Talk a little bit, Chad, about the water temperatures and the weather in South Miami, in Miami Beach, South Beach, this area. What do we know?
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Water temperature right where you're seeing that picture is 73 degrees. That is right at government cut. If you've ever come out of the Port of Miami on a cruise ship, there's this rip-rap wall, actually two of them, one on each side that extends probably a good half a mile just from South Beach right into the water. High tide was 12:12. So water was actually going out from the cut back into the ocean. Although there really isn't much of a good current there when the water's going out, maybe it's a couple miles per hour.
But water temperature very survivable. Current as it could push you back out into the ocean -- we saw the helicopters actually offshore looking for the potential for people out there rather than back in toward land because the water wouldn't push them that way. The water would be pushing them offshore.
We didn't have any really bad weather in the area whatsoever. We had a little bit of a light haze, but visibility still at about a mile and a half.
Here is that cut, the Port of Miami just to the south of South Beach. And if you take just a straight line from where the plane is, that red dot, a couple of showers around right now. But they weren't there during the time of the plane crash.
The incident right here, if you take that all the way up government cut, that right there is where the cruise ships dock, that is the Port of Miami.
And the Coast Guard was on the scene so very quickly. In fact, they are stationed less than a mile from where that plane occurred.
BLITZER: All right, Chad. We're going to get back to you.
Chad, thanks very much.
Bob Francis is still with us, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Bob, these planes take off and land on the water. Is that right?
BLITZER: And can they also land -- under emergencies, do they have wheels so they can land on land?
FRANCIS: You know, I think some of them do, Wolf. And I'm not, you know, familiar with this particular type of aircraft. So, you know, I should be careful about what I say.
But the obvious advantage of this is that they can go into places where there isn't a paved runway. So they're using the float plane advantages both in Miami and wherever they're landing.
Some of them do have wheels that are deployable under the floats. And whether this has that or not, we will know pretty certain.
BLITZER: All right, Bob, I'm going to have you stand by, if you can. I want to continue our coverage.
Breaking news out of Miami Beach. A sea plane carrying 18 people, two pilots, 13 adults, three infants, has crashed shortly after takeoff. The search and rescue operation under way. Twelve bodies have now been recovered.
We're going to continue to watch this story.
We'll take a quick break, though, first. Much more right after this.
BLITZER: We're continuing to follow this breaking news out of South Florida, Miami Beach specifically.
A sea plane carrying 18 people has crashed shortly after takeoff. Twelve bodies have now been recovered. U.S. Coast Guard and other first responders on the scene searching for bodies, searching for survivors. Hoping for some good news. Thirteen adults on board as passengers, three infants and two pilots -- 18 people all together. Once again, 12 bodies have already been recovered.
Bob Francis is the former vice chairman of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board.
It's a small airline company, Chalk's Ocean Airways. It flies these sea planes between Miami and the islands. This flight was on its way to the Bahamas. And it's been in operation, as we've been pointing out to our viewers, since 1919, a long time.
Bob, but you're saying generally speaking, based on what you know, these sea planes have pretty good track records?
And I did a little bit of research, and they do have landing gear that they can extend. So they can land on runways as well.
BLITZER: And in case of an emergency.
Now, talk a little bit what investigators -- and the NTSB, your former agency will be taking the lead in this investigation.
If eyewitnesses say they heard some sort of explosion shortly after takeoff and then the plane began to plummet, what will they be looking for specifically? What could cause that kind of a catastrophic situation?
FRANCIS: Well, you know, they'll certainly be interested in talking to eyewitnesses.
But I think the -- and they've got -- their teams will be set up in a way so that witnesses will be part of one of the first things they do. But they're going to be extraordinarily interested in getting as much of that airplane off the bottom of the cut there as they can, as quickly as they can get it.
I mean, it's interesting, when I was at the board, I investigated a fire on the cruise ship Ecstasy, and, you know, it's a mile from where this accident took place. So the water isn't too deep there and with divers out, obviously looking for survivors at this point.
But the board is going to be interested in having divers when the status of all of the passengers in established. The board is going to be very interested in pulling up as much of that plane as they can get.
BLITZER: Do these small planes, as far as you know, Bob, these seaplanes have what they used to generically call black boxes, the flight data recorder, the voice data recorders? I assume if they do, that search and rescue operation workers will be looking for right now?
FRANCIS: The answer is if they do, they certainly will be -- those would be the first things they would be interested in. Aircraft and commercial operators of this size, an aircraft of this size, have not had a mandatory requirement for recorders.
And it's something that the NTSB has been recommending, and I believe the FAA has been working on the issue of some kind of a rule- making that would end up requiring -- and quite frankly, I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with the status -- but I guess my guess, it's nice to be able to guess when you're not with the board -- my guess is that there would not be recorders on this airplane.
BLITZER: All right, Bob. Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the NTSB joining us. Bob, thank you very much for your help. Abbi Tatton is watching the situation online. She's picking up some information on this Chalk's Ocean Airways. Abbi, what are we learning?
ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, first of all, this is actually a video on it from the Bahamas Film Commission. You can see those airplanes landing on the water there. We can also go to the site itself from Chalk's Ocean Airline. Bear with me, we'll see if we can get that working.
More information on the site there. These are -- sorry, we're working, finding as much as we can, as quickly as we can here, Wolf. These are planes that can land both on land and the ocean. Information there about the company, a long-established company, it's been around since 1919, flying these flights from Miami to the Bahamas.
Information there about the fleet of Grumman G-73 aircraft, saying that they can accommodate 17 passengers. We know that there were 18 people on board, including those two pilots. Interestingly, at the site, it's saying that the fleet is undergoing an extensive refurbishment program right now, including a complete mechanical overhaul. That, at the Web site right now, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's a nice picture of that little seaplane, as well. Thanks, Abbi, very much.
Dana Warr is joining us right now, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard. Dana, I understand you actually saw what was going on. Did you?
DANA WARR, CPO, U.S. COAST GUARD: That's right. I was standing out on the pier on the Coast Guard beach in Miami Beach and actually watched the aircraft take off. Went by, didn't look anything out of the ordinary. Didn't hear anything out of the ordinary. Just as it was taking off year-after-year and come back, that's what it looked like.
BLITZER: Well, describe exactly what you saw. You saw the plane actually take off?
WARR: I didn't see it take off. I saw it after it had left the water and was going up in the air. I was just off the end of the Coast Guard base here in Miami and didn't think anything of it. Was walking back to the office and saw a black plume of smoke over my shoulder, and still didn't really think anything of it.
And then all of the sudden, I heard the Coast Guard search and rescue alarms on the base go off, and saw the guys running down the pier and jumping in the boat. And kind of put two-and-two together, went inside and found out that plane had actually crashed.
BLITZER: And there are Coast Guard rescue -- search and rescue teams on the scene right now?
WARR: We've got numerous Coast Guard units. We've got a lot of different agency representatives: the state, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Miami Beach Ocean Rescue. We had our own helicopters on the scene. We have a lot of people that responded to this and are still responding. We got, just as I walked out of the operations center, I know a lot of people have been saying the number was 18. We were told there were 20 with three infants in that 20, along with the pilots.
BLITZER: So in other words, instead of 13 adults, 13 passengers, there were 15 passengers, three infants, plus the two pilots. Two pilots. Is that right?
WARR: That's correct.
BLITZER: And right now, can you confirm that 12 bodies have been recovered?
WARR: That's the oldest report and the latest report. That was some time ago, that 12 bodies had been recovered probably about 40 minutes ago.
BLITZER: And once again, the 20 -- the 20 people on board, that number is coming from where? WARR: That number is coming from the people, the aircraft company.
BLITZER: The Chalk's Ocean Airways is now saying there were 20 people on the manifest on this flight. The flight was going from Miami to the Bahamas. Is that right?
WARR: I don't know where it was going from. You know, our issue right now is to find any survivors if possible and recover the bodies. And right now, we're bringing them into the base here in Miami. And I'm actually here at the scene, and ambulance and EMS are on the scene and they're taking them to the Miami Beach coroner's office.
BLITZER: And Dana, tell us -- have they recovered, have they found any survivors or have they only found bodies so far?
WARR: That's right. We've only found bodies, we haven't found any survivors.
BLITZER: But they're searching and critically these next minutes are very important while it's still daylight out there?
WARR: Absolutely. And that's why it's so important for all these units that responded that you know, to get out there as fast as they did. We did, we're just around the corner from the (inaudible). We're able to get there within minutes of after -- you know, once the report came in. Those minutes are crucial to the success of finding any survivors.
BLITZER: What do you know about these seaplanes? I don't know if you know much about them. Have you followed this over the years as a representative of the Coast Guard?
WARR: I do not know if we have -- because it is a commercial aircraft and it operates on the water, I don't know if the Coast Guard has any -- I'm not familiar if we have any guidelines or rules that they have to follow that we implement. You know, I'm not familiar with that.
BLITZER: But it's a regular -- you live down there. You see these planes taking off and landings. You see planes all the time, I assume?
WARR: It's very -- it's very traumatic, very tragic to see this. I live down here. I've grown up parts of my life, and I've seen this aircraft come and go. And to know that it's crashed here in government cut is very, very tragic. And we just send our best thoughts to the families and wish them well.
BLITZER: And the weather, you're there. The weather was good, right?
WARR: What's that?
BLITZER: The weather was good, wasn't it? WAR: Well, it's overcast here. I think it's raining a little bit. Not very hard. But there was no -- there were no thunderstorms or major rain clouds in the area.
You know, I don't know what caused the aircraft to go down. I was standing there, and as I saw it go by, I thought nothing of it. And actually, you know, I've seen it many other times go by, and it's always looked the same.
BLITZER: We're seeing these live pictures, Dana, courtesy of our affiliate WPLG. It looks like an actual flotilla of boats, Coast Guard vessels, others -- literally one next to the other. I don't know if you have access to what we're showing our viewers on CNN right now. But it looks like they're almost going methodically in searching for survivors.
WARR: We are searching as fast and hard as we can, like you said earlier, time is critical. Once we lose our daylight, the search efforts are hindered tremendously. And so we're trying to account for who we can and hopefully account for 20 people. And hopefully there's some survivors in there.
BLITZER: And is it the search for survivors? At this point, you're not actually trying to recover parts of this plane?
WARR: We're doing a lot. We -- Coast Guard and the other agencies are working side-by-side. We have a search and rescue going on. We have a recovery going on. We've actually shut down the (inaudible).
BLITZER: I think I'm losing you, Dana, are you there?
WARR: Yes, we've actually shut down the Port of Miami, so ships coming in and out of the port don't interfere with our search and rescue operations.
BLITZER: So it's a huge massive operation. How long have you been based in Miami?
WARR: I've been down here since December, but I was down here back in the early 2000 and I'm from, my family's from Miami.
BLITZER: Do you remember an incident, a crash of a seaplane like this?
WARR: Not that I recall, not as traumatic as anything like this.
BLITZER: Well, it's a very dramatic moment, Dana. Thank you very much for sharing some moments with us. And we're going to check back with you, but we can confirm based on the information you have, Dana, 20 people were on board that plane: 15 passengers, three infants. That's 18, plus the two pilots, that's 20 people. Twelve bodies so far have been recovered. Is that right, Dana?
WARR: That's right. That's the latest number we have and you know, we have to go with that. That's information that we're getting from the airline company. And, you know, until that changes, we have to stick with 20 and account for 20 people.
BLITZER: Dana, stand by for one second. Chad Myers, our meteorologist at the CNN Weather Center, has a question for you -- Chad?
MYERS: Dana, we've been looking at Google Earth all day and how close you actually were to where the plane went down. How long did it take to get you on the scene? And have there been divers in the plane itself?
WARR: I didn't hear the last part.
MYERS: Have there been divers in the plane, in the fuselage?
WARR: We did have divers go in the plane. Coast Guard out of Miami here at the beach were first to respond. They were there within minutes. We're only maybe a mile around the corner from where the plane went down. We did have divers from Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue go down into the aircraft.
MYERS: So, now, are there missing people?
WARR: Well, you would have to say they are. I mean, we haven't -- you know, a lot of that is still ongoing. The divers are going in the aircraft. And as they find people, of course, they'll bring them to the response boats. But, you know, I don't know if they've been able to account for all 20 people yet.
MYERS: For a while, we saw the helicopter, the Coast Guard helicopter offshore in case some people were actually taken away. We knew that the high tide was 12:12. If they got caught in that current, they could have been taken offshore. Was there anything found out there by the helicopter?
WARR: I don't believe so. Everything so far has been found in the vicinity of the debris field there at the entrance, the entrance of government cut (ph).
MYERS: Right. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Chad. Thanks very much. Dana, pronounce your last name for us. I just want to make sure we get it right.
WARR: It's Dana Warr.
BLITZER: Dana Warr, a spokesman for the U.S. coast guard. Dana, you've been very helpful to us, to our viewers. Thank you very much. We're going to check back with you very soon. Dana Warr helping us from the Coast Guard. Jon Regas is joining us on the phone, now. He's a former airline pilot.
You're watching all of this, Jon. What goes through your mind?
JON REGAS, FORMER AIRLINE PILOT: One of the first things that really struck me was that one of your witnesses said the wing separated from the aircraft. This always -- of course, we always concern ourselves with the first eyewitness reports as your NTSB person just said. But if that really did happen, there may have been a structural failure.
Also, sea planes, when they take off or land, are quite vulnerable to what we call submerged debris, little things in the ocean that might catch on one of the wing floats as you might see on the picture there. The wing floats are out near the end of the wings and help stabilize the aircraft when it's on the water.
If it catches on that, the airplane might twist or cartwheel. Also, these airplanes -- while Chalk's (ph) as a fine reputation, these airplanes were built in the late 1940s. And they were recently retrofitted with new turboprop engines, the Pratt and Whitney PT6 engine from Canada, Pratt and Whitney of Canada. So these things are always a concern on an older airplane and recent major overhauls.
BLITZER: So there's obviously -- we're speculating right now, but we have no idea what caused this plane to go down. But you're pointing out, it's very interesting, that the unique dangers that these sea planes have because they take off not on a runway but literally on the water. And there could be debris in the water that could catch the parts of that plane.
REGAS: That's one of my first concerns. And these planes are properly called amphibian planes because they can land and take off both from the sea and the land, as they have these special landing gear which retract into the body of the aircraft. This is caused a mallard turbine built by Grumman. A turbine mallard. And again, they were originally built back in the late 1940s.
BLITZER: What kind of track record, safety record -- you obviously know a lot more about this than I do. What kind of safety record do these sea planes have?
REGAS: Well, really, you have such a great advantage because you can land on the ocean or a lake or a runway with this type of airplane. So in some ways, they're quite safe. In the 1940s, a very famous singer of the time, Jane Froman was injured in a sea plane crash, and that plane actually caught some debris upon landing somewhere near Lisbon in Portugal.
Whenever you do a special kind of operations with airplanes, you're always a little bit more vulnerable. And again, that one witness that you spoke to earlier, he sounded likes he knew what he was talking about when the wing separated. And that's of great concern to me.
BLITZER: All right. I'm going to have you stand by, Jon, because you two have been very helpful for us. Kellie Butler is a reporter from WPLG. She's at the Coast Guard station in Miami. Kellie, what are you learning?
KELLIE BUTLER, WPLG REPORTER: Well, Wolf, we are just hearing right now from the Coast Guard that indeed, 20 people were on board. Fourteen bodies have been recovered, three of them infants. We'll pan around here to show you what's going on. This is, as you mentioned, the Coast Guard station in Miami Beach, very close to where the accident happened. This is a staging site that has been set up. This is where rescuers have the grim task of bringing the bodies in. We have seen at least seven bodies brought into this area.
The medical examiner has not arrived yet, but once again, 20 people on board. So presumably, a search is still underway for six more people who are on that sea plane. Witness accounts that the sea plane was struggling shortly after takeoff. One witness who was working at the docks over...
BLITZER: We just lost Kellie, unfortunately, our affiliate reporter Kellie Butler from WPLG. We're going to connect back with her shortly. Jon Regas, a former airline pilot who knows a great deal about these planes, is still on the phone with us.
Jon, just to recap for viewers, it's getting dark down there. The search and rescue operation is seriously going to be hampered once it is dark in Miami. Twenty people, we're told by the Coast Guard, on board. Kellie just reported 14 bodies have been recovered, 20 people, 15 passengers, three infants, the two pilots.
You were telling us about the nature of these planes, the safety record. I don't remember many accidents, at least in my memory, and I'm not an authority on this by any means, involving these sea planes. They've been around, as you know, for a long time.
REGAS: Well, as many aviation historians know, the great transatlantic flights were all with sea planes by the early Pan Am Clippers. And after World War II, sea planes fell into disfavor as many land runways were placed all over the world.
One very interesting other interesting accident with a sea plane, I recall that the husband of film legend Maureen O'Hara ran what was called Antilles Float Plane Airlines. And he too died in a sea plane crash back in 1968. That person Kellie who was just speaking said something quite interesting, if I may. She was indicating that witnesses said it was struggling right after takeoff. That could indicate an engine failure.
BLITZER: All right, Jon, hold on for a second. A spokesman for the Coast Guard is speaking right now. Let's listen in.
UNIDENTIFIED SPOKESMAN: We have not found any survivors yet. The numbers could change again. You know, there's a lot of people involved in this, a lot of different agencies. You've got Miami Beach Ocean Rescue, you have FWC, you have the Coast Guard. We have our aircraft, we have our vessels. We have good Samaritans trying to help out. And a lot of information is, you know -- we're trying to get the best we can.
So the number 20 may change again. We hope it doesn't and can remain consistent. We have a good number of how many people were on the aircraft, how many people we've recovered, or bodies we've recovered, and how many possible survivors there could be. QUESTION: You said there were three infants on board?
SPOKESMAN: There was reports to us that there were three infants included in that 20.
QUESTION: Where exactly in the Bahamas was this plane going?
SPOKESMAN: Hang on. I don't know where this aircraft was heading. All I do know is that it just frequents the Bahamas.
QUESTION: What did you see when you went out there? You said that you saw the black smoke. And then when you actually saw, what was the next thing you saw?
SPOKESMAN: Well, I didn't witness the crash. I actually -- I saw the aircraft taking off down Government Cut like it does so many times over and over again. Nothing was out of the ordinary. It was as it was taking off on a regular flight. So I didn't think anything of it when it went by and went on my daily business. As it went by, saw the black smoke, and then heard our alarms go off and then found out that it crashed.
QUESTION: Have you recovered the infants?
QUESTION: Have you contacted any family members?
SPOKESMAN: I don't know if we've recovered any infants or not. Our major concern is that we get a good count on how many people were in the aircraft, how many people we've recovered. And everybody is being sent to the Miami Beach coroner's office. So if there are any family members out there that are aware that they have family members or friends on this aircraft, that's where they're being taken.
QUESTION: Are you still searching for six people?
SPOKESMAN: We are still searching for six people. Twenty is the total given to us, 14 bodies have been recovered. So we still have six people unaccounted for. And it's very critical that we do have a lost units covering a lot of area.
When the sun goes down, the search efforts are hindered majorly. And right now, we have light, we have good visibility. We have a lot of people out there. So we're doing what we can.
QUESTION: How many people do you have out there right now? How many boats?
SPOKESMAN: I don't have an exact count. But I could go on and on with the lists. We have several Coast Guard units, we have some cutters (ph) that were diverted, we have some of our own aircraft that came over. Fish and Wildlife, they have around seven or eight vessels. I think they have 16 or 17 people.
Miami Beach Ocean Rescue has some, Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue Marine Division, their divers are on scene. There's just a lot of people out there. It's a tragic event. It's very -- it's just a lot's going on, so we're trying to do what we can to find the six people.
QUESTION: What reports have you heard from your officers.
QUESTION: Do you think there's infants? You said you hadn't found any.
SPOKESMAN: That was reported to us from the airline company that three infants were on board. Yes.
QUESTION: And have they given you what they believed to be a cause of the crash?
SPOKESMAN: That, I have no idea, and I probably will never know that until the investigation is done. We are not the investigative agent in this. Our responsibility is to have a search and rescue plan, have a recovery plan, and assist the other agencies as they need it.
QUESTION: Can you describe to us what the scene looked like when your crews arrived? What were they up against?
SPOKESMAN: Well, this is -- it was a very -- I don't know why the aircraft went down, how it went down. I saw some of the pictures. It was a large debris field. And only they can tell you what that's like. But it's an aircraft that crashed on takeoff with up to 20 people on board.
QUESTION: What's the message...
BLITZER: Dana Warr, he's a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard. He's on the scene in Miami. You're looking at these pictures. Search and Rescue workers looking for bodies, hopefully survivors. Twenty people we're told by the Coast Guard on board this small sea plane that took off 2:3:00 p.m. Eastern, a little bit more than two hours ago, from Miami, en route to the Bahamas.
Fourteen bodies have been recovered. The Coast Guard and others searching for survivors, searching for other bodies. We're going to continue to watch this story. Much more right after this short break.
BLITZER: We're getting multiple feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, all from Miami Beach. A plane has crashed near south beach in Miami. Twenty people on board, we're told by the U.S. Coast Guard. Fourteen bodies have been recovered. They're searching.
The search and rescue teams are underway, led by the U.S. Coast Guard on the scene. They're hoping for six survivors. If not, they're looking for those bodies. Twenty people on board, 15 adult passengers, the two pilots, and three infants. The search and rescue underway right to you, but it's going to be much more complicated momentarily once it gets dark in Miami.
We're watching this story for you. The plane was a small plane, Chalk's Ocean Airways, a sea plane taking off from Miami on its way to the Bahamas. There's a picture of a plane similar to the one that was taking off. This plane flying since 1919, Chalk's Ocean Airways. It was founded way back then, and it's been flying ever since. A long- running operation by Chalk's Ocean Airways.
Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Bob, you've been helping us better understand what's going on, this investigation that is now about to begin. The NTSB will be the lead agency involved in this investigation. Based on what you heard from the Coast Guard, based on what you heard from some of the eyewitnesses, what's going through your mind?
BOB FRANCIS, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN: Well, we're at the point where the safety board folks have to get there. Obviously, the major issue at this point, as the Coast Guard representative pointed out, is to see if there are survivors and to find them, and find if there aren't survivors, to find the additional six bodies.
But from an investigative point of view, the Coast Guard, as probably know, is enormously important in an accident like this to the NTSB, in terms of the recovery, in terms of what they've seen, what they've found during their activities in terms of search and rescue.
So the board is sending a team. My understanding is it's led by the acting chairman, Mark Rosenker, and it'll have 14 people. So I don't know where they are. I do recall that when we did the investigation of the Valujet accident back in '96, we got to the scene down there fairly quickly.
If there's an FAA airplane available to take the investigative team and the accident took place two hours ago -- and again, depending on where Mr. Rosenker is, et cetera -- they could be getting down there within the next few hours, I think.
BLITZER: To start this formal investigation. Bob, hold on for a second. Jacki Schechner, our Internet reporter, is joining us. Jacki, we're waiting for a news conference. Chalk's Ocean Airways is about to make a statement, and we're going to go there live once that starts. But you've been looking into the safety record of this airline company. What have you picked up?
JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, you can do that, Wolf, at the NTSB Web site, ntsb.gov. And here's what we've found. There's been about eight incidents, from what we can tell, since the 1960s. Pulled out a couple of them. No fatalities on any of these incidents, according to the Web site records. You can do search on your own at home.
This is what it'll pull up, a couple of recent ones from Fort Lauderdale International Airport, May 2001. There were cracks in landing gear that caused it to collapse as it was taxing to the ramp. The incident report said that it was faulty gear that was put back into service. This is what it looks like as it's approaching the ramp. This from a transit museum site online that we found.
Another incident talking about the plane was in 2002 in Fort Lauderdale. One crash landed in the water due to bad weather. Again, no fatalities in either of those incidents or in any of the incidents that we found on the Web site.
But according to the transit museum site that we found, Wolf, there is discussion of the fact that as of 2004, there were three planes in commission that were built in the '40s and there were two in the hanger being restored. So all of this information we're calling as it becomes available online. But some information about the history of these older, older planes, Wolf.
BLITZER: How many years back does the safety record, this Web site from the NTSB, go?
SCHECHNER: It goes back into the '60s, the early '60s. It was 1962, in fact, and it comes all the way up through 2005. So you can really search all the way back, and really only found eight incidents on the NTSB Web site.
BLITZER: Eight incidents involving Chalk's Airways, is that right?
SCHECHNER: Yes, specifically Chalk's. What you can do is go on the Web site and plug in the airline specifically that you're looking for. And that'll pull up the records. And it will tell you -- this is interesting -- details about what the NTSB found.
So when I was telling you about the plane that had the cracks in the landing gear, it went all the way back and talked about how it was faulty gear, that it was put back into service. It should not have been, and that's what caused it to break down on the ramp.
BLITZER: All right, good work, Jacki. Jacki Schechner reporting for us. We're standing by for a news conference. Chalk's Ocean Airways, the operator of this flight from Miami to the Bahamas, this plane that has crashed, about to have a news conference with the latest information. We're going to go there live once it starts.
Our team of reporters, analysts, guests all standing by. We're watching this breaking news. Twenty people were on board this flight from Miami to the Bahamas. Fourteen bodies have been recovered. The search and rescue operation continues. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back. You're back in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. We're following breaking news out of Florida, Miami Beach specifically. A small plane, a seaplane from Chalk's Ocean Airways, with 20 people on board, according to the Coast Guard, has crashed. Fourteen bodies have been recovered. A massive search and rescue operation is underway right now.
We've been getting all the latest information from the Coast Guard on the scene. We're standing by for a news conference. Representatives from Chalk's Ocean Airways, the operator of this flight from Miami to the Bahamas, expected to make a statement shortly. We'll go there once it starts.
Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, is on the phone with us. Jacki Schechner, Bob, was telling us since the '60s, Chalk's Ocean Airways has a terrific -- it seems like it has a pretty terrific safety record, no fatalities. Some incidents, but it doesn't look like anything nearly as significant as what has just happened today.
FRANCIS: Well, as we know, the accident, particularly a fatal accident, is becoming more and more an extraordinarily rare event. And their record certainly indicates that they operate in a manner and maintain their airplanes in a way that has given them a good record.
BLITZER: A very good record. Some incidents, but apparently at least the ones she mentioned, some of them weather-related. The weather seemed to have been pretty good in Miami around 2:30 or so Eastern once this plane shortly after takeoff crashed. And we're not sure why and the investigation that the NTSB will undertake will help us determine. Normally, this kind of an investigation could take months to complete, couldn't it, Bob?
FRANCIS: Yes, absolutely. You know, this is a serious investigation. And I would think that the totality before the NTSB board meeting and the final conclusions, recommendations, and probable cause will be a year, anyway.
BLITZER: When would they normally release the tape? And I assume there is tape of the conversations between the pilots, the two pilots aboard the small sea plane, and the air traffic controllers?
FRANCIS: That probably will take a while. I would just guess that that's probably -- well, I shouldn't guess. But if there's something there, they're obviously going to be very interested in it. But the board tries to give out factual information, you know, as quickly as it can. What they obviously want to avoid is drawing conclusions or speculating.
So once they get something that's factual -- if they say, you know, "We found the engine and the engine was not running when the airplane hit the water," then they'll tell you that. Now, the why of that happened, they're not going to speculate on until they've done the full investigation and find out why it happened. And not just be immediate, but trying to look at some, you know, why did they lose an engine?
BLITZER: And presumably, that conversation between the pilots of this Chalk's Ocean Airways flight and the control tower, that is record. Is that right?
FRANCIS: It will be recorded by the FAA facilities, yes.
BLITZER: Even if there are no flight data recorders or voice recorders on board?
FRANCIS: That's true. It'll be -- the FAA Air Traffic Facilities have records of all of their transmissions with airplanes, which I believe they keep for 30 days, anyway. It's kept for a substantial amount of time.
BLITZER: The nature of the investigation, once it begins, and I assume it's already begun to a certain degree, but what you're saying is once the NTSB representative are on the scene, it will be critical to recover as much of the debris from this plane as possible?
FRANCIS: Absolutely. But you're correct also, Wolf, that the investigation has already been begun. And there will be people from the Miami NTSB office probably on the scene already to make sure that it's secured in the way that they want. There will also, I suspect, be at least one person go from the Miami office to the airline facilities, particularly any maintenance facilities. They'll want to go there. They'll want to be looking very quickly at the maintenance records of that aircraft.
BLITZER: Would they actually recover all the debris and actually try to rebuild that plane? I remember some of the earlier experiences with some big jetliners that were almost totally rebuilt from scratch after the debris was recovered.
FRANCIS: That's a sort of if-required thing. It's very expensive to do. And in most accidents, it's not required. As you remember, in TWA, we had to do that. It cost us millions of dollars to do it, but it was extraordinary valuable. But again, that was an extraordinary accident. They number of times we've had to do that, or the board's had to do that, is fairly limited.
We did a very little piece of a cargo hold in the Valujet accident because we wanted to see -- that's where the fire had started and we wanted to see the damage right after that cargo hold. But that was probably 20 feet by 20 feet, or something like that.
BLITZER: Bob, stand by with us.
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