MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – A seaplane carrying at least 19 people to an island in the Bahamas crashed in a ball of fire and smoke in the waters off Miami Beach Monday, apparently killing all those aboard, local authorities said.
"All of the bodies have been recovered," said Jorge Gonzalez, Miami Beach city manager.
The Coast Guard reported that there were 20 on board the Chalk's Ocean Airways plane, 18 passengers and two crewmembers, and that one person was still missing but 19 bodies had been recovered. Miami Beach authorities reported that there were 17 passengers and two crewmembers on the doomed jet and that all 19 had been found dead.
Among those on board were three infants, authorities and the airline said.
The twin-engine Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard departed from Watson Island, in the Miami Beach vicinity, en route to Bimini.
Ocean rescue personnel witnessed the plane crash, said Miami Beach Fire Chief Floyd Jordan. Smoke billowed from the engines, followed by an explosion that apparently tore one wing off the aircraft and sent it diving into the water, he said.
Scuba divers and rescuers in speedboats had struggled to find survivors, but to no avail.
"Originally our lifeguards went into the water to try to retrieve as many survivors as they could ... into the water and into the plane as best they could," Jordan said. "They were unable to find any survivors."
Because of witness reports of an explosion before the small plane fell from the sky, the FBI sent agents to assist in the investigation, but there was no immediate indication of terrorism or sabotage, said Judy Orihuela, spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami field office.
"It's too soon to say whether we are going to get involved," Orihuela said. "We're just going to check it out."
The propeller-driven plane went down around 2:30 p.m. in a narrow channel used by cruise ships, crashing on takeoff on a flight to the island of Bimini in the Bahamas, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said. It hit the water within sight of the beach.
With many schools already closed in advance of the holidays and Christmas week traditionally one of the biggest times of the year tourism, the beach was relatively busy, and dozens of beachgoers saw the plane go down. Dozens more gathered to watch the rescue.
As Coast Guard helicopters hovered over the crash site, some surfers remained in the water, only a few hundred feet away. Some surfers used their boards to rush toward the spot where the plane plummeted into the sea.
Sandy Rodriguez, 14, said he saw the plane flying low with white smoke trailing from it and flames coming from the bottom. The right wing then fell off as the plane went down, he said.
"It exploded in the air and one of the wings flew out of there. The other part of the plane was on fire and it just went straight down," said Maurice D'Giovianni, 42, a surfer who was in the water at the time.
Coast Guard spokesman Dana Warr also saw the crash from the Coast Guard office on an island in a channel known as Government Cut. "Everything looked normal, I saw the aircraft take off like it does every other times. I didn't think anything of it when I saw the black smoke from the pier, until I then heard the Coast Guard alarms go off," he said.
Coast Guardsmen and emergency workers wearing protective suits hauled bodies up from rescue boats, rushing to find victims before darkness fell. Law enforcement speedboats, divers and helicopters took part in the search and were joined by others in private boats, on personal watercraft and on surfboards.
A witness, Frank Amadeo, told WSVN-TV that he saw a huge explosion in the sky and the plane fall behind a condominium tower on Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach.
The Coast Guard said the cause of the crash was not immediately known, and it could not confirm whether there had been an explosion. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate.
The plane went down near the mouth of Government Cut, a channel that cruise ships and freighters take past South Beach into the Port of Miami. The channel is up to 30 feet deep near the crash site, but parts of the plane could be seen in shallower areas.
The skies were cloudy, but there was no rain or lightning in the area at the time of the crash.
Chalk's Ocean Airways flies between Miami and the Bahamas, using planes that take off and land on the water. Chalk's aircraft have been featured in TV shows such as "Miami Vice." Its seaplanes take off in view of the port and the multimillion-dollar homes that dot islands in the bay.
Founded by Arthur "Pappy" Chalk in 1919, the airline thrived during Prohibition, taking bootleggers, their customers and customs agents to Bimini. According to the airline, its most famous regular passenger was Ernest Hemingway, who flew to Bimini to go big-game fishing.
One of its planes was hijacked to Cuba in 1974 and the company has since had a policy of not carrying enough fuel to get to Havana.
Two years later, the airline was sold to Resorts International, which owned properties on Paradise Island. Donald Trump bought it in 1988 and sold it a few months later to Merv Griffin. The owner as of 1995 was Seth Atwood of United Capital Corporation of Illinois/Atwood Enterprises.
According to its Web site, Chalk's operates 17-passenger Turbine Mallards.
Chalk's general manager Roger Nair said it was the airline's first accident with passenger fatalities. The National Transportation Safety Board database indicates no fatal accidents involving passengers for Chalk's since 1982, when the database began.
Chalk's only crash involving fatalities happened in 1994, when two pilots died in a crash of their seaplane near Key West.
FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.