MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Vincent Dilella looked up when he heard a strange sound from the sky, knowing almost immediately that something was horribly wrong.
He saw a seaplane about 300 feet in the air, emerging from behind one of the many high-rise condominiums that dot the coast of Miami Beach. In a moment, one of the aircraft's wings was in flames, generating such heat that Dilella felt the warmth in his face.
"We heard an explosion, and it looked like it was going down," said Dilella, a high school senior from the Miami suburb of Kendall. "And it looked like it was coming down on people. You knew right away that something was really, really wrong."
Dozens of onlookers, mostly surfers, watched as the propeller plane crashed in the water Monday after taking off for Bimini in the Bahamas.
The operator of the plane, Chalk's Ocean Airways, said 18 passengers and two crew members were on board. Nineteen bodies had been recovered. The Coast Guard reported that 19 were on board and that all of the bodies were recovered.
The sands of Miami Beach were relatively busy Monday, with many schools already closed for the holidays and the Christmas week traditionally one of the busiest for South Florida tourism.
As word of the crash spread, dozens more people rushed to the scene, which was cordoned off by yellow police tape. And even as Coast Guard choppers hovered overhead, some surfers remained in the water, only a few hundred feet away from rescue crews who were searching for survivors.
Dilella said he could see at least 300 surfers along the beach when the plane crashed, and some of them frantically tried to rush toward the spot where the small craft hit the water.
Surfer Maurice D'Giovianni, 42, said he heard a distinct "boom" before a wing fell off and the aircraft tumbled into the water, with black plumes of flame tailing it.
"It exploded in the air, and one of the wings flew out of there," D'Giovianni said. "The other part of the plane was on fire, and it just went straight down."
As soon as he saw the crash, "I said right away, 'I think those people are dead,"' D'Giovianni said.
Patric Devins, 40, of Montreal, said he nearly collided with two police officers on mountain bikes as he stepped out of a coffee shop, unaware of the commotion nearby.
"I knew there was something happening, and it had to be bad," said Devins. "My girlfriend is already saying she doesn't want to fly home. You just ask yourself, you know, how does this happen? How?"