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The Situation Room

Seaplane Crashes Near Miami Beach

Aired December 19, 2005 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's the top of the hour. It's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where news and information from around of the world arrive at one place at the same time.
Happening now, the breaking news we've been following.

It's 5:00 p.m. in Miami Beach. An urgent rescue operation under way, as a seaplane crashes right off shore. We're going to take you to the scene straight away.

And a defiant President Bush defends the secret wiretapping of Americans and says it breaks no law. But critics say he is taking the law in into his own hands. Will the electronic eavesdropping continue?

Does the National Security Agency, the NSA, have any business spying on Americans in the United States? I'll ask the president's former national security adviser, the current secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. That interview coming up.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin with the breaking news out of Miami. The crash of a small airplane in the waters around Miami Beach. Right now, rescue crews are desperately searching for survivors.

Let's go to the news conference that's about to begin, representatives from Chalks Airways in Miami.

ROGER NAIR, DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, CHALKS AIRLINES: My name is Roger Nair. I'm the general manager and director of operations for Chalks Airlines.

QUESTION: How do you spell your last name?

NAIR: N-A-I-R. N like Nancy, A-I-R.

And we regret to inform you that Chalks international Flight 101 with 18 passengers, which includes three infants and two crew members, has gone off the waters in Miami Beach. The flight had departed our seaplane base in Wharton (ph) Island, was on its way to the Island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

Chalks has been in the airline business since 1919. And this is our only crash with passengers. We're a close-knit family airline, and most of our passengers have been our customers for an extended period of time.

Our thoughts and our prayers are with our passenger and our crews.

We are presently trying to gather as much information as possible, and it will be released to the public as soon as we have them. Meanwhile, we have informed the FAA and the NTSB in Washington, and they're getting their go-teams together.

Thank you, folks.

QUESTION: Can you comment on an explosion at all?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll let you know more information when we have it, OK? Thank you guys.

QUESTION: Are you going to have any other statements tonight?

NAIR: Probably not.

BLITZER: And that's it, the confirmation from a spokesman for Chalks Ocean Airways, an operation that's been in business since 1919, confirming their first fatal crash over all these years.

Twenty people were on board this flight taking off from Miami on its way to the Bahamas, specifically Bimini, the Island of Bimini in the Bahamas. Eighteen passengers, two pilots, three of those passengers infants.

According to the Coast Guard -- we heard this a little while ago -- 14 bodies have been recovered, search and rescue operation continuing, searching for those six other people on board. Let's hope there are survivors.

Kim Segal is our producer on the scene for us in Miami.

Kim, what else are you picking up?

KIM SEGAL, CNN PRODUCER: We know that the search and rescue is continuing and hopes to find some survivors out of this crash. But so far, we are being told there's 14 people who have been killed. But the search and rescue continues as the night is falling.

BLITZER: The weather was pretty good about 2:30, two and a half hours or so ago, in Miami, once this plane took off, I understand, Kim.

SEGAL: Yes, it was just like a normal day. It was actually -- the weather was very nice down here, the sun was out. It was a little overcast, but there was nothing wrong with the weather. So I'm not sure what that will play into this.

BLITZER: Is it getting dark pretty quickly now? SEGAL: The sun is starting to set, Wolf. They will have probably another half hour to 45 minutes of sunlight. But it is starting to go down pretty quickly.

BLITZER: And that's -- once it gets dark, it will undermine, going to hinder this search and rescue operation. So the Coast Guard and other first responders working feverishly right now to try to find survivors, if there are any.

No indication from any Coast Guard or other FAA or any other sources what may have actually happened that caused this plane to go down, Kim?

SEGAL: No, we're not getting word. I think it's too soon in most incidents like this. The only information we are getting is information from eyewitnesses. And as you know, eyewitness accounts will vary. But hopefully soon, Wolf, we're going to be able to bring to your viewers in this hour actual video, home video of this plane going down.

BLITZER: Really? Did someone actually shoot some video of the plane as it was going down from the skies?

SEGAL: You have to remember, the area where it unfortunately went down is a tourist area. There's a very nice beach right there. And the people who we were in contact with and were able to get the home video from were tourists, and they happened to be on the beach taking pictures of surfers at the time of this unfortunate incident.

BLITZER: So we're in the process now of getting this tape and we're going to be showing it to our viewers. Is that right?

SEGAL: That's correct, Wolf. We hope to have it for you to air within the next few minutes.

BLITZER: All right, Kim. Thank you very much.

Kim Segal has been a producer for CNN in Miami for many years.

We're going to stay in close touch with you.

Chad Myers, our meteorologist, is watching this situation, the weather situation, the water temperature.

What else are you picking up? Show our viewers what you have come up with, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: The plane, Wolf, actually took off from the water, down along Government Cut, and obviously didn't even make it out of the cut. You see the riprap along some of the pictures, the big boulders that they have dropped into the water that actually parallel the coastline here as it goes out, or perpendicular to the coastline.

It is part of the shipping channel to the port of Miami. As the plane took off from the water, obviously losing elevation and getting only to just offshore, just past South Beach, where the plane was obviously there in the water, winds were only six miles per hour, the waves in the cut were less than two feet. Everything looked good.

Visibility was more than four miles. Yes, there was haze, as Kim was talking about, but nothing that was less than visual flight rules. Everything was good for the takeoff when it comes to weather.

BLITZER: And if you could, Chad, show our viewers where that plane was taxiing on the water and where it actually would start its ascent from the water. And we see that little red dot over there where it went down.

MYERS: Right.

BLITZER: That's right at South Beach, the lower tip of Miami Beach. And that area, that water in between, is called Government Cut.

MYERS: It is called Government Cut. It is where all the cruise ships come in and out. If you've ever been on a cruise ship in Miami, you'll find this relatively similar here to what you've been seeing.

If you're driving the boat in, you would take your boat right on through, the ship would then dock right along here, right along the causeway, McArthur Causeway (ph).

This boat, this plane was coming up -- because it's both, the amphibious plane -- coming up, lifting off here. According to the Coast Guard, which was located right there -- there's another marina there, there's a marina there -- the Coast Guard planes and all the witnesses there getting a little bit of trouble through here, seeing smoke about this point, and then getting into the water right there just off shore, literally a hundred to 200 yards off shore, but still within the cut, still within that riprap is.

It never did make it east or west of where the cut comes out.

BLITZER: And no indication whatsoever what brought that plane -- have you ever been on one of those seaplanes, Chad?

MYERS: No, but I know Jimmy Buffett has one, and he takes off with it all the time. And they -- really, you think about all of the planes that must be coming in and out of Miami on a daily basis and the lack of any bad news from any of these planes.

They are really fairly bulletproof in most cases, plus they can land on the water if there is trouble. So the fact that this plane was so much in trouble that it couldn't even land -- and for a while we even had video of one of the wing on the riprap, on the rocks where the fuselage was well into the water, and one of the witnesses did say, Wolf, earlier that the wing did come off, or at least the plane broke into more than one piece before it hit the water.

BLITZER: And Chad, you heard Kim Segal, our producer, say we've got videotape now of the plane actually going down.


BLITZER: Tourists were shooting that crash. So we're going to be showing that to our viewers this hour or so. We're going to watch that, and I'm sure investigators from the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, will want to take a look, close look at that videotape, as well.

MYERS: This is a huge tourist area, Wolf. And a lot of fishermen right along the riprap as well.

This is South Beach. There could have been 10,000 people along that beach today at that time, 2:30 in the afternoon, very popular time, people out taking walks, strolling along with their dogs right along the beach. I assume that there are probably thousands of witnesses to this event.

BLITZER: And I'm sure they'll all have stories to tell. Stand with us for a moment.

Speaking of eyewitnesses, we spoke to some eyewitnesses within the past hour or so. Here is what they said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had 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 was 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 then all of a sudden we just heard it blow up. And I saw two pieces and it went down into the water.


BLITZER: Some of the eyewitnesses who saw what was going on. This small plane, Chalks Ocean Airways, it's been in business since 1919, 20 people on board, 14 bodies have been recovered. The search and rescue operation continues.

John Regas is a former airline pilot. He's still with us. He's on the phone.

You've been listening to all of this. You've been digesting it. You know a lot about these small seaplanes, John.

What do you think? JOHN REGAS, FMR. AIRLINE PILOT: The more I hear -- and I've heard one thing that it was struggling after takeoff. If the engine failed and the pilots attempted to land it immediately, and were just unlucky enough to catch a wing tip, it might have flipped over, separating the wing.

The first witness that you just showed is very compelling that he said the wing came off. And if it came off, right -- during takeoff and landing, the airplane is under an enormous amount of stress, especially after just leaving the water.

Earlier you were talking about recovering air traffic control tapes. This airplane -- now, I'm not privy to the exact procedures, but the location of this airplane, he may not have had to talk to air traffic control if he was going to stay at a very low altitude for some time. So I'm not too sure that we're going to see too much from air traffic control. There may not have even been time for a distress call.

BLITZER: That's -- that sounds ominous, indeed. And I know when we get that videotape of -- a tourist apparently was shooting a camera, and we're going to be showing that to your viewers fairly soon. People will be watching that videotape very, very closely for any indications of structural damage to the wing or any other part of the plane.

REGAS: I agree. It's going to be fascinating. And it's just a miraculous age, where so people have video cameras that we can get potentially amazing evidence within just hours of the crash.

BLITZER: Well, we'll stand by for that. We're also standing by, John, for a news conference.

Miami authorities getting ready to offer their thoughts on what exactly has happened. We're going to go back to Miami, Miami Beach. We're following this breaking news, a small plane, Chalks Ocean Airways, a seaplane with a flight scheduled from Miami Beach to Bimini in the Bahamas, went down shortly after takeoff. Twenty people on board, 14 bodies have been recovered.

The search and rescue operation -- there you see it -- it's under way, but it's going to be very, very much more complicated as a result of darkness beginning to set in.

We'll come right back to the story right after this.


BLITZER: Authorities in Miami -- Miami Beach are discussing this plane crash.

Let's listen in.

FLOYD JORDAN, MIAMI FIRE CHIEF: FAA is on the scene, NTSB is sending its team out to begin its investigations. I'm going to ask our fire chief to give you a little bit about what happened as far as the response and recovery efforts, and then the police chief will talk a little bit about what the next steps are as far as securing the site.

Before I call them on, though, I want to express our condolences to the families of the victims. On behalf of the mayor and the City Commission of Miami Beach, I want to make sure that they know that everything that we could do to help we did. It's unfortunate that the circumstance played out this way.

I also want to thank all of the agencies that have been involved in this recovery effort: Miami-Dade Fire, Miami-Dade Police, the City of Miami Police. All have sent representatives. The medical examiner will be involved, the Coast Guard all have been involved in this effort.

So we'll hold questions to the end. But let me ask Floyd Jordan to come up and say a few things about the immediate response in Miami Beach.


We were notified about 14:40, that's 20 minutes to 3:00 about this particular incident. We had a very quick response. Our units arrived on the scene in about a little over two minutes, at 14:42.

Our intent when we first arrived was to try to find as many survivors as possible. As the manager stated, unfortunately, even though we retrieved some of the bodies -- but we were unable to find anyone that had survived this tragic incident.

Our ocean rescue personnel, they witnessed this event while the plane was in the air. They respond very quickly. They were the first in the water, and they were the first to retrieve at least the first two victims that was brought on board.

I certainly would like to take this opportunity to certainly thank the efforts of our fire personnel. They made a gallant effort, they did the best they could in order to get in the water as quickly as possible. There was a quick response. Unfortunately, their efforts did not result in any survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good afternoon. I would also like to start out with our condolences to the families.

Right now the police department is securing the scene, working with the FAA, NTSB, the city of Miami, the Miami-Dade Police Department, the state attorney's office, and the ME's office in a cohesive investigation, interviewing witnesses, recovery of any items that might -- might have to be pulled in to -- from the water. And this is really the beginning for us at this point. And I'll welcome any questions anybody might have.

QUESTION: Do you have any reason do believe that there was foul play involved in this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have no information at this time. QUESTION: Did you gentlemen say that, as far as you know, all of the bodies have been recovered, or some?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of the bodies have been recovered.

QUESTION: So there were 19 people on board?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nineteen passengers on board.


QUESTION: How many were...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nineteen passengers on board. My understanding, we don't have the manifest in our hands, but it's alleged that there were 17 passengers and two crew members.

QUESTION: Were there any infants?

QUESTION: Do you have a list of passengers?


QUESTION: Any infants on board?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't answer that question. I'm not familiar.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's information that you'll need to check with Chalks Airline.

QUESTION: What's the pilot's name?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't have any information on the passengers.

QUESTION: Do you know what witnesses may have seen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A report? What you heard so far? Yes.

JORDAN: Basically, two of our ocean rescue lifeguards, they were on duty. What they witnessed was a plane heading out. They witnessed a plane with a lot of smoke coming from the engines, and at some point, very briefly, that was what they believed to be an explosion, what appeared to be an explosion. One wing they thought might have came off, and then the plane headed straight down into the water.

QUESTION: Was there ever a distress...


JORDAN: Immediately, they called it in and reported it so that we could get out emergency units responding as quickly as possible. They actually went out with the intent of trying to find survivors. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

QUESTION: Are you hearing anything about distress calls?


JORDAN: Say again?

QUESTION: How large is the debris site, or is it all contained in the area?

JORDAN: The area is kind of contained. The fuselage went down into the water even though it's broken up somewhat, but it's still basically -- it's not strewn all over the place. So they've been able to go in with the dive teams and they've been able to recover all of the 19 victims.

QUESTION: Chief, are you hearing anything about distress calls?

QUESTION: Were there any distress calls?

JORDAN: The only call that our communications received was the original calls that came in from our lifeguards who were on duty with their radios. And they called in and reported there was a plane in distress and went down.

QUESTION: Chief, how deep was the water where the plane went down? And I understand (INAUDIBLE) divers went into the wreckage and took the people out?

JORDAN: Originally, our lifeguards, they went into the water to try to retrieve as many survivors as they could. The depth of the water at that point in time, I cannot tell you that, you know, particular information. And then, when our fire crews responded, our people that are dive-certified and dive-trained, they began going into the water trying to come up with survivors

QUESTION: Into the plane? Into the wreckage?

JORDAN: Into the water and into the plane as best they could, trying to find survivors.

QUESTION: When the plane went down, (INAUDIBLE) try to retrieve survivors?

JORDAN: There were people out there, there were people on the beachside that witnessed this. But at that point in time, our goal was to try to contain the area of the incident and not to allow people to come in. Once our lifeguards got there and once our emergency -- other emergency response units responded to the scene, as well as the police, our goal was trying to contain the area so that we can do our work there.

QUESTION: Were all 19 people found on the plane, or were some of them in the water?

JORDAN: Some were in the water. The original two victims that were brought on board, they were in the water, and they were actually retrieved by our ocean lifeguards.

QUESTION: And then the 17 others (INAUDIBLE)?

JORDAN: In the plane, in that general particular area.


JORDAN: I'll turn it over to the police for that.


QUESTION: What's the next step in this investigation?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now secure the scene, interview witnesses, work with NTSB, who is going to be here -- who's here now, but the rest of the team is coming in from Washington, and the FAA.

QUESTION: Do they have a black box or something that would record the last few minutes of the crash?


QUESTION: What kind of a plane was it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know the model. It's a Chalks Airplane, so it's one of those seaplanes that they use.

QUESTION: Mr. Gonzales (ph), can we please get a statement from you in Spanish? We have a lot of (INAUDIBLE)


BLITZER: All right. We're going to break away from this news conference. The mayor of Miami Beach speaking in Spanish.

The information we're getting not good. The mayor and other authorities there saying 19 people were aboard this Chalks Ocean Airways flight seaplane. Seventeen passengers, two crew members, all 19 bodies have been recovered.

There has been some discrepancy whether 20 people were on board or 19. The mayor saying 19. The Coast Guard earlier saying 20. Nineteen bodies, though, the mayor saying, in any case, have been recovered, including those of infants.

We're going to continue to watch this story. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: The breaking news we've been recovering this afternoon, into the evening, a small plane, a seaplane in Miami Beach, crashed shortly after takeoff en route to Bimini in the islands of the Bahamas. Nineteen people, we're told by the Miami Beach city manager, on board, 19 bodies have been recovered, 17 passengers, two crew members. A search and rescue operation, a massive operation, has been under way. The NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, will be investigating, already is, in fact.

Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Bob Francis, is here as well, the former vice chairman of the NTSB.

Tom, first to you, show our viewers, recap what happened, where it happened, what we know as of this point.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK. This is just south of Miami Beach. If we move into the plane crash area, you fly in, you see that it goes right down to Miami Beach and down -- and this little cut that runs in is where the accident occurred.

I want to take a look real quick at what these people would have seen. The staging area was down here at Chalks Ocean Airways. That's where it all started.

If we rotate this around a little bit, you can see the point of view that these folks would have had as they attempted to take off on this day. And we'll angle it down just a little bit.

This would be what they would have seen as they took off and headed out toward the ocean. They would have flown along this way. There are the cruise ships on the right we heard about earlier. And as they move down this way, the trouble, as we heard it, occurred somewhere in here, and then the plane actually went down right in this area.

BLITZER: That's called Government Cut.

FOREMAN: Exactly. And this is the area right here where the plane went down just off the end of this little jetty over here. And this area is where we've seen all that search activity. In fact, they've been staging the ambulances and the folks who are hoping to rescue right up in here. So that's where it happened.

BLITZER: I suspect that that water is not very deep over there, Tom.

FOREMAN: Clearly not very deep there. If you widen it out and you take a look at this, it's deep for standing in, but you can see the lightness along the edge here. That shows a shelf of sand.

So you may be talking about 15, 20, 30 feet, probably not a lot deeper there. But once you get to the dark area over there, it gets a lot deeper fast.

BLITZER: Bob, what do you think? You've covered -- with the NTSB, you've been involved in a lot of these investigations. If that plane went down in that water, it's relatively shallow. It's not like the ocean.

ROBERT FRANCIS, FMR. NTSB VICE CHAIRMAN: I think the depth is probably the function of the ships that go through there and what they draw. And, you know, you say...

FOREMAN: If you're close to the jetty, it's going to be narrower.


FOREMAN: Deeper in the middle. But probably the big issue, right, is the speed at which it hits the water.

FRANCIS: Well, that's right.

FOREMAN: A plane like that is going to be moving on very hard.

FRANCIS: Yes. And the current isn't that -- isn't that strong. So I think recovering the aircraft as much as they need to recover is probably not, compared to some of the accidents that we've been involved in, not going to be that difficult.

BLITZER: Given the fact that it's so close to shore?

FRANCIS: Close to shore, not too deep, and not a very strong current.

BLITZER: When you hear these eyewitnesses -- and now we heard the mayor, the city manager of Miami Beach, the police, the fire representatives saying that eyewitnesses say they heard some sort of explosion. What does that say to you?

FRANCIS: It says that they think they heard an explosion. And maybe they're right, but I would just say that when professional investigators get there, who are used to dealing with these kinds of engine failure, explosion on an airplane, et cetera, it may or may not turn out to be the case. And sometimes we have witnesses that sound very credible, and when you start picking up the parts of the airplane, that's not at all what happened.

It's not a criticism of witnesses, it's just that the human being tends to -- tends to see what they think they should see or they would see in a context.

BLITZER: In a situation like this, because I remember from covering other plane crashes, the speed of sound is different than the speed of light. And sometimes you hear something a lot later than you might see something. And as a result, you may be mixing up what actually is going on.

FRANCIS: Big issue on the TWA 800.

BLITZER: I remember off the coast of Long Island, that TWA flight, there were eyewitnesses who were sure they saw a surface-to- air missile going up to bring that plane down. You remember that.

FRANCIS: Well, the classic one was the woman that had taken a picture of what had happened. And when the FBI took the picture, developed it and analyzed it, the accident took place south of Long Island. She had been focusing on something north of Long Island. BLITZER: So that can really complicate an investigation when you have eyewitnesses giving...

FRANCIS: Right. So, sure, they're very important to interview them and to take into account what they say, but they are -- they are from human beings. And human beings are not perfect.

BLITZER: CNN correspondent Rick Sanchez is joining us on the phone. He's based in Miami. Rick, you've actually flown one of these small sea planes?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I have. I've been out there with my family on several occasions. And it's kind of chilling when you think about it, because on several occasions, my family, all four kids have taken trips to the Bahamas. It's kind of...

BLITZER: Are you there, Rick?

SANCHEZ: Yes, can you hear me, Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, we just lost you for a second. Go ahead. You were saying you and your family have flown Chalks Ocean Airways to the Bahamas?

SANCHEZ: Chalks Airways is a very important part of Miami lore. Anybody who ever remembers going back to the Miami Vice days, that famous television program, they started their episode with a shot of Chalks Airways as it was taking off. I mean, it's part of what Miami is. I mean, they've have some problems in the past, but Chalks Airways is very well-known in the (INAUDIBLE) South Florida. And when you take the plane, you feel actually safer, because you know, or you're thinking in your head, obviously not as an aviation expert, that if this has a problem, it will be able to land in the water. And that's why it's, after all, an amphibious plane.

I think what we're dealing with here, though -- we were mentioning moments ago that there may not be a current there. There's a huge current there. And let me tell you why. That's a cut. In other words, it's an inlet. So if you're talking about high tide or low tide, and if you have the water either rushing in or washing out or rushing out and then you have the wind coming in the opposite direction -- I've taken my boat through that channel many, many times, and it's difficult to steer a boat through those waters.

You could imagine how difficult it would be to try to land a plane on an emergency basis in those waters. So I wouldn't think -- I think if he would have tried or if the place that we were talking about was trying to get him to the mouth of the cut or just after the mouth of the cut, then the waters start to smooth out somewhat. But right there in that area that we all seem to be focusing on and officials seem to be telling us where the plane actually went down, would probably be as difficult a place...


SANCHEZ: (inaudible) BLITZER: Yes, we just lost you for a second. Stand by for a second, Rick. I just want to update our viewers at the bottom of the hour what we're covering, breaking news out of Miami Beach. A small plane, a sea plane carrying 19 passengers who we believe -- 19 people, 17 passengers, two crew members went down shortly after takeoff. Chalks Ocean Airways. It's been in operation since 1919.

This was a flight from Miami Beach to Bimini in the islands of the Bahamas. And all 19 bodies have been recovered, according to authorities there. It's been a story we've been watching and been covering now. It's getting dark there. The search and rescue operation is going to be complicated.

There's another story we're following as well right now just coming into CNN. Let's go to CNN's Zain Verjee at the CNN center in Atlanta. What's going on, Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, CNN is learning that approximately 500 pounds of commercial type explosions taken from an ATF licensed business that's located just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The material was apparently taken from their explosive bunker. The high explosives were military-like. They're often referred to as C-4. But they were not military issued. The theft was discovered last night, Sunday night.

Apparently detonators, commercial explosives, sheet explosives and shock tubes are all missing. It's not really clear who has taken it. There is an investigation underway. They're going to the public hoping to find leads. But that's the situation. About 500 pounds of commercial type explosives have been taken from an ATF-licensed business just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And C-4, Wolf, for people who don't know, is a plastic explosive. C-4 stands for composition four. And it's prized because it's very easy to shape. It's kind of like putty or soft clay. And it's difficult to set off by accident. And the main ingredient used in C-4 is RDX. And that's something that's used when one makes fireworks. Wolf?

BLITZER: Well, that's a very worrisome development, 500 pounds of commercial explosives missing, unfortunately. We're going to continue to watch that story together with you, Zain, and update our viewers once we get some more information.

The other story we've been following the past several hours here, since 2:30 or so Eastern time on the East coast, a small sea plane went down shortly after takeoff in Miami Beach, 19 passenger and crew members. All 19 bodies have now been recovered. We'll watch this story. We'll take another quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: The story we've been covering all afternoon since 2:30 or so p.m. Eastern, a small sea plane goes down in Miami Beach, 19 people on board, 17 passengers, including some infants, two crew members. Nineteen bodies have been recovered. The search and rescue operation has been intense. Here's what an eye witness told us just moments ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was looking at the plane like we usually do, and it was smoking through both engines. He tried to land, and it blew straight up straight in the air, and it went down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you see this plane a lot every day?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:: Yes, of course. We see right there the docks. And we're always there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you think when you saw this? I mean, what went through your mind as you saw this happening?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My God, it's Christmas, and the families, what's going to happen? You know? So it went down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you able to see if people responded to try to get in to help these folks? Were you able to do anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, we just seen all the rescue go out that way. And that's it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you saw smoke from both engines?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. He tried to land the plane, and it blew right up straight up in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw the plane -- no fly. He stayed nearby to the sea.


BLITZER: Eyewitnesses describing what they saw, a plane go up, and then it went down. Bob Francis, the former vice chairmen of the National Transportation Safety Board. You been cautioning us about these eye witness accounts, because people think they saw things that might not necessarily have occurred.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. And you just look at the differences between the eye witnesses that we've heard, what, half a dozen eye witnesses, perhaps, and explosions and wings falling off and tried to take off and couldn't get off. So it remains for the investigators to start to do their work. And the parts of the airplane are going to tell them a lot about how it came down, what struck first, perhaps, even, whether the engines were running, where it broke.

BLITZER: And the debris will be really critical in trying to recreate what may have happened.


BLITZER: We heard from our producer in Miami, Kim Siegel, a little while ago that some tourists did shoot video of the plane going down. And we're standing by. We're waiting to get that video. We'll show it to our viewers once we do. That videotape, to the NTSB, will be very important.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. I mean, if it's good film, it'll be enormously valuable.

BLITZER: Because then you'll slow it down and watch it frame by frame by frame.

FRANCIS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: I mean, you'll piece it together with a timeline to try to determine why this plane went down.

FRANCIS: Yes. And if they're able to follow it over a period of time of some seconds, obviously, you know, the more you have, the more valuable it is. But even with two or three seconds of video can do an awful lot.

BLITZER: And explaining how this happened?


BLITZER: And the investigation -- the purpose of the investigation, let's not forget, is to try to learn as many lessons as possible to make sure it never happens again.

FRANCIS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: That's why the NTSB -- who will help the NTSB in this kind of investigation?

FRANCIS: Well, it's very interesting. I mean, you've heard about a lot of people who will be parties already: the Coast Guard, obviously, the company...

BLITZER: Chalks Airways.

FRANCIS: Chalks Airways. Probably the Miami-Dade County -- they were extraordinarily important for us in the Value Jet accident investigation in the Everglades almost 10 years ago. So all of those people now -- then the manufacturer of the airplane, you know, whether they still exist or not -- I don't know -- who builds the engines, those avionics, those people are all going to be of interest to the board.

BLITZER: We heard from a former veteran pilot, airline pilot, John Rigas, a little while ago that if this plane was taking off at a relatively low level, there may not necessarily have been a conversation between the crew and the air traffic controllers in the tower.

FRANCIS: That's possible. I don't know exactly what kind of air space that is there. But if they're very low, at least for a period of time, they probably would not have to be talking to the controller. BLITZER: This was a flight that was scheduled to take off from Miami and head to Bimini in the Bahamas, which is not necessarily all that far.

FRANCIS: Yes, no, but eventually they'd get up into air space where they'd have to report to ATC.

BLITZER: Our Internet reporter, Jacki Shechner, is getting some more information about this airline, Chalks Ocean Airways.

Jackie, what are you picking up online?

JACKI SHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we're actually getting some more information from the NTSB about some incidents involving Chalks Airways, which was at one point known as Chalks International then Chalks Ocean Airways and somehow was connected to Flying Boat. So we're looking into some of those incidents to see.

Now, I don't know how many of those were fatalities and how many of those were just incident reports. So we're calling through some of that information right now. Just wanted to give you a general sense of what we've been able to find online so far from the Chalks Web site. Obviously a history of their plane fleet, talking about how it's going under a refurbishment right now, how they're working on some of the planes, according to the Web site, the fleet being redone.

Again, from the NTSB, the incident reports that we've been able to pull up -- there were eight of them that we were able to find through the NTSB. But they have sent us some additional reports that include those three names that we mentioned: Chalks International, Chalks Ocean Airways and Flying Boat. So we're seeing how those are interconnected. Also, allegedly that Chalks International was at one point under bankruptcy in 1999 and stopped flying for a little portion of time.

The other thing I wanted to show you is from this Kells Transport Museum Web site online, some photos of how these things come in and out of the water. We know that they work on land and also on the sea. And you can see this coming up onto the ramp and then what the plane looks like once it's actually on dry land. So something you might be familiar with, but they also do land in water. Unfortunately, this one not able to make it, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jacki, very interesting.

Bob Francis, that NTSB Web site is pretty impressive, given the -- and especially very useful in a story like this.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. I mean, this age helps enormously in terms of getting information not just like this, but in terms of something that may have happened a long way away.

BLITZER: Do they keep a good record of all incidents?


BLITZER: And it's online. People can go check the safety records of Chalks Airways or any other airway, for that matter.

FRANCIS: Yes, you can, but you just have to know what you're looking at. I mean, the fact somebody had an incident doesn't necessarily reflect seriously on the safety of their operation. Everybody has incidents.

BLITZER: Bob Francis, you've been very helpful for us. Thanks very much for helping us cover this story. Nineteen people aboard this small sea plane. Nineteen bodies have now been recovered, 17 passengers, two crew members. We're watching this story for you. We'll update you throughout the night here on CNN.

There's another important story we've been following all day. The president had a big news conference earlier today speaking about his decision in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 to go ahead and authorize surveillance of Americans and others in the United States without court warrants. We're following that story. I also spent some time today over at the State Department with the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. We'll have that interview, much more coming up. Stay with us. You're in the Situation Room.

Welcome back. Let's turn now to the wire tapping of Americans without court orders. President Bush is under a barrage of criticism for authorizing the eavesdropping. But he's not backing down at all. He's strongly defending the domestic spying by the National Security Agency


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This program has targeted those with known links to Al Qaeda. I've reauthorized this program more than 30 times since the September 11th attacks. And I intend to do so for so long as our nation -- for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill our American citizens.


BLITZER: The president spoke and stood his ground during an hour-long news conference over at the White House. He made it clear the eavesdropping will continue. But legally, does the president have a leg to stand on? The issue is being hotly debated by lawyers in Washington and around the country. Let's check in with our Brian Todd. He's following all of the arguments.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today the president took a rhetorical trip here to the archives where the U.S. Constitution resides. It's one of those documents that the president says back up his argument that his secret wire taps are legal.


BUSH: Welcome, please be seated.

TODD (voice-over): The president defending his legal right to secretly wire tap Americans without court orders.

BUSH: The legal authority is derived from the Constitution as well as authorization enforced by the United States Congress.

TODD: Mr. Bush citing Article II of the Constitution granting him power as commander in chief of the armed forces and Congress's joint resolution right after September 11th authorizing him to use all necessary and appropriate force in the war on terror.

DAVID COLE, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: I think the president clearly broke the law.

TODD: David Cole, professor of constitutional law and national security at Georgetown University, bases his opinion on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA, as it's called, allows electronic surveillance without a court order so long as it occurs within 15 days of a declaration of war. Cole says the president did not follow that limitation.

COLE: It the person who authorizes the wire tap is punished, then it's up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. Now, for the president to pay that price, he would have to be prosecuted by Alberto Gonzales.

TODD: But the attorney general says FISA, passed in 1978, doesn't account for the electronic age of warfare.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: There have been tremendous changes in technology since then. And what the folks at the NSA tell me is that we do not have the speed and the agility in all cases to deal with this new kind of threat under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

TODD: Some legal analysts counter that FISA allows the president to tap first and then get permission later. But all the legal analysts we spoke to agree this argument may never reach the courts because those who likely could bring lawsuits against the government probably don't know they're being tapped.


TODD: Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting earlier today.

And I sat down for a special interview with the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. She stood up for the president on the issue of wire taps without warrants. Listen to this.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: From a policy perspective, the problem that has to be solved and that must remain solved is to be able to protect this country by detecting terrorist plots before they materialize. If, in this case -- this is not a criminal activity where you let the criminal commit the crime and then you investigate after the fact. This is not trying to understand the activities of people who might be working on behalf of foreign governments. This is trying to detect, in a very rapid fashion, plots again this country by not having the territory of the United States as a safe haven for conversations between people with terrorist -- with terrorist ties here and with terrorists outside of the country.

BLITZER: This is an extremely sensitive national security issue.

RICE: Of course.

BLITZER: It doesn't get much more sensitive than this. As a result, I'm confused why the president decided to publicly acknowledge it.

RICE: Well, I think the president felt that after this very damaging leak -- and frankly, it's a very sad day when the United States reveals to the people that we are trying to follow, trying to track, trying to disrupt, how we're doing it and anything about how we're doing it. You know, Wolf, the president cited earlier, we had a bead on Osama bin Laden 's phone at one point, too. And when an article appeared saying that, he stopped using it, from all that we can tell.

So it is a danger to the country when there are leaks of this sort. But the president felt that given this he needed to explain it to the American people without exposing the details of the program. And there have to be limitations in order to not expose the details of the program, but that he needed to explain that he was using his constitutional authority to protect the country in order to detect these plots, but also to protect their civil liberties.


BLITZER: I also spoke with the secretary of state about the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues. Here's what she said.


BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Iraq, the war that's ongoing right now in the aftermath of the elections, which by all accounts was smooth last week. Some 10 million Iraqis voted. How concerned are you, though, that the Shiites, the Kurds, the Sunnis, that at some point down the road this country could simply break apart into civil war?

RICE: Well, there are all kinds of difficulties in a change of this historic circumstance. But everything that I see with the Iraqis is that they are going to the polls and voting to try and have a unified country in which all of their interests can be realized.

Now, clearly, Wolf, Iraq was drawn along the, kind of, fault lines between Sunni and Shia Islam, with Kurds thrown into the mix, and you have Turkoman and other groups as well. And so, it's a complex political environment with many different interests. But they now have in the constitution, a constitution which will likely and should be amended, a vehicle by which people can have their interests represented through politics and compromise rather than through violence. And this is a very important change for a country that's always done it through repression and violence. It's not going to be easy. But every indication is that the only people who are really talking about civil war are people like Zarqawi.

You don't hear Iraqi leaders talking about civil war or threatening civil war. You hear them talking about trying to work across sectarian lines. And while no one should underestimate the difficulty, everyone should at least give them a chance and sense of confidence that they know that a future in which they work together is going to be one better than one which they break apart.

BLITZER: The president last night said the U.S. and its coalition partners, friends in Iraq, we're winning. Would you say at this point that the insurgency is in its last throws?

RICE: I would say that the insurgency has been dealt several blows, most especially when almost 70 percent of the people go out and vote and say that they intend to determine their future in that course rather than through violence. That's a blow to the insurgency, because an insurgency cannot exist and cannot thrive without the basis of popular support. And that popular support is now moving to the political arena and not to the insurgents.

That Sunnis voted in the numbers that they did is extraordinary. And I think we learn something else very important. While it is true that Sunni leaders told people to boycott the elections in January, and they did, therefore dealing themselves out of the political process, they game back in huge numbers. But we also learned that there may be some intimidation and fear associated with the decision of some Sunnis not to participate even in January. So I think there's a real chance now for the Iraqis to take this opportunity to build a unified and democratic state.

BLITZER: How worried should Israel be about threats from Iran and its new president?

RICE: Well, I think everybody ought to be worried about an Iranian president who says these outrageous things and then expects the world to somehow trust Iran with nuclear technologies that could lead to a nuclear weapon. That really says it all. I think that Ahmadinejad has somehow crystallized the issue with these statements that he's made.

The E.U.-3 will continue their work to try to find a diplomatic solution. I have to say I haven't seen anything that suggests that the Iranians want a solution that would be satisfactory to the rest of the world. But it's important also not just to speak about their nuclear program, but about Iranian support for terrorism, support for terrorism that undermines Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians, that undermines the Lebanese people as Syria has left.

But Iran continues to support the violent activities of Hezbollah. And the kind of activity in which Iran has engaged against its neighbor in Iraq. And so, we need to take a hard look at the external behavior of Iran and also at a state that is going in the wrong direction in terms of political pluralism and participation of its people.

BLITZER: How important is Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, personally to the peace process?

RICE: Well, as the president said some time ago, we believe that Prime Minister Sharon is somebody with a vision for a better life for Israelis based on a two-state solution. He's taken great personal risk. He's also taken great policy risks and been very courageous in his decision to withdraw from the Gaza and do it to disengage and to do it despite a lot of criticism and a lot of skepticism. Personal courage matters, and this man matters.

BLITZER: Are you getting indications his health, though, is going to be OK?

RICE: Well, we've talked to people and to his people. And they say he's doing well. And, of course. we all wish him the very, very best.

BLITZER: There's apparently going to be a new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who said long live coca, no to the Yankees, I am the United States' worst nightmare. He's aligned with Fidel Castro, with Hugo Chavez. What does this mean to the United States that a leftist, a Socialist along these lines with outspoken rhetorical statements against the United States is apparently going to be the next president of Bolivia?

RICE: Well, should it be confirmed that he is indeed president, then we will do what we do with every elected president, which is to say that we'll look to the behavior of the Bolivian government to determine the course of U.S./Bolivian relations. We have good relations with people across the political spectrum in Latin America. The issue for us is will the new Bolivian government govern democratically, are they open to cooperation that in economic terms will undoubtedly help the Bolivian people. Because Bolivia cannot be isolated from the international economy. And so, from our point of view, this is a matter of behavior.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go, because it keeps coming up, no matter what you say. Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2008.

RICE: I just don't have a calling to do that, Wolf. And I think politics is a kind of calling.

BLITZER: So you're saying...

RICE: Wolf, I'm saying I don't have a calling to do this. I think there are going to be great candidates in 2008. And you know where I'd like to be in 2009 or 2010 or so and see you in New York at the NFL.

BLITZER: I'm going to break the news to you. You're not going to be the commissioner of the NFL.


BLITZER: I've heard that.

RICE: How do you know that?

BLITZER: Maybe I'm wrong.

RICE: We'll see.

BLITZER: Madam Secretary, thanks very much.

RICE: Thank you.


BLITZER: I assured her I was joking. She might be the commissioner of the NFL. Much more of our interview coming up later tonight, 7 p.m. Eastern.

Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou Dobbs. She's getting ready to pick up our coverage -- Kitty.