It was a typical Caribbean day: bright and sunny, the sky dotted with small puffy cumulus clouds drifting quietly and rapidly by. The harbor was busy with small vessels and larger ferry boats cruising back and forth on the sparkling, lightly white-capped waters.
The ferries chugged across the harbor packed with passengers on their way to work or play on the other side. The small boats moved faster, but with less direct intent, giving their passengers time to admire the shimmering scenery of Old San Juan or the shining Atlantic waters beyond.
Nearer Old San Juan, a sea plane rolled and bobbed in the slightly churning waters. On board the new El Caribe Airlines pontooned-craft, besides pilot and co-pilot, were six travelers bound for St. Thomas in the U. S. Virgin Islands.
Among them was a middle-aged Canadian couple, happy-faced tourists anticipating the day trip to Charlotte Amalie with its duty-free stores filled with island trinkets and inexpensive alcohol and tobacco products.
Behind the Canadians, was a well-dressed, red-faced man from San Juan, a businessman perhaps or minor government official. Just back of him sat an old mulatta woman, holding a smiling, happy little boy, most likely her grandson, who cooed happily at her and the world in general.
At the back of the plane was a quiet sailor, on day leave, possibly, looking forward to the excitement of the afternoon bar scene on St. Thomas.
The pilot revved up the immaculate, powerful engines per preflight procedure. The motors hummed smoothly and the passengers watched as onshore crewmen unhooked and retrieved the ropes holding the aircraft to its deplaning dock. Un-tethered then, the plane drifted and bounced in the rolling waters. Slowly, the pilot taxied the aircraft away from the dock and across the mildly choppy bay towards the sea. With its engines whining towards takeoff speed, the plane began to move across the harbor.
The passengers watched out the windows as the plane bounced across the bay going faster and faster, with each passing moment striving to become more aerodynamic and less ocean-bound. In moments, it was barely touching the surface of the bay as the pilot steered it out towards open water.
“Oh, how exciting,” the Canadian woman enthused, as the plane rattled and shook in its effort to become airborne.
“Wonderful,” her husband concurred, patting his wife on the hand.
The well-dressed, red-faced man leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. The mulatta lady held onto her little charge, who had begun to whimper at the sound of the roaring engines and rough thuds of the pontoons as they fought through the waves. In back, the sailor sat calmly, lost in his own thoughts, his face an impassive mask.
Then, just as the plane reached take off speed and the pilot began to pull back hard on the yoke to bring it up off the water, an unexpectedly strong wave, the wake from a large ocean-going yacht perhaps, swamped the right pontoon.
The awkward looking plane dipped to starboard, spun up, rolled over once and with engines screaming uselessly into the warm winter air, crashed flat on its back into the harbor. From a distance it had the look of a large, metallic insect caught in some watery trap. Remarkably, the craft stayed afloat upside down for several minutes, slowly sinking below the surface.
Luckily, a nearby, fast-responding Coast Guard rescue boat was quickly on the scene. As the groaning, creaking plane dipped below the surface of the water, Guardsmen threw themselves into the bay beside it and rapidly forced open evacuation doors along the sides of the wrecked aircraft.
In a matter of minutes, the Guard had managed to pluck seven of the stunned survivors from the wreck, including the dazed pilot and co-pilot. But, then the plane sank too fast to make a final rescue run and the eighth person went down with the craft.
Later that day, with the waves in the harbor mostly settled down, Guard divers located the airplane at the bottom of the harbor and recovered the last body. It was still strapped in its seat at the back of the plane, a half-inch bolt from the cracked fuselage driven neatly into the skull just above the right temple.
The young sailor on day leave was brought up carefully and the Guardsmen gingerly laid his body to rest on the harbor dock. One of the rescuers turned the head so that the wound did not show. Before the body was removed, a reporter snapped a photograph, but when it appeared in the paper the next day, the young man looked more like a sailor sleeping one off on the dock than a corpse.
The following week he was given a brief funeral service at his San Juan base before the body was shipped home for burial in his Midwestern, land-locked hometown. The Navy listed his death as accidental, non-service related. His buddies threw a wake for him and drank several toasts in his honor. For a few weeks nobody wanted to take a seaplane when they had day liberty, but that concern died out shortly.
A few weeks later, El Caribe used its insurance money to buy a new aircraft. In no time at all they were back in business. By then the accident had nearly been forgotten by the local populace. The airline had no trouble selling tickets. There was always a demand to go island hopping in the Caribbean. One accident was no reason to change that. No reason at all.
Image Courtesy: Flickr