September 7, 2001 - Officials Pushing To Get Records; Investigators May Subpoena Owner Of Plane
Investigators want access to maintenance records, pilot training records and details on how the charter flight that Aaliyah was on was arranged. Bahamian officials, who are overseeing the accident investigation, are focusing on whether the 10-seat twin-engine plane was overloaded or improperly loaded. They may subpoena Gilbert Chacon, owner of the Cessna 402B that went down in Marsh Harbour on Aug. 25 and left nine dead. But so far Chacon had declined to come forward.
Randy Butler, the lead Bahamian accident investigator, said on Thursday that he had not had official contact with Mr. Chacon yet. "I would think the first thing you do is pick up the phone and tell your side of the story," he added.
Cyril Saunders, the Bahamian director of civil aviation, said that nation's attorney general could seek a subpoena. He might also ask U.S. authorities to compel Chacon to provide information, as the United States has more legal resources and expertise in aviation law, he said. "We're certain [Chacon] violated a lot of international laws. But whether our penal code covers that remains to be seen," Saunders said.
If the U.S. authorities feel an operator was negligent, they might even file criminal charges, something they have done in the past when they feel an operator has been negligent. Notably, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against SabreTech, the maintenance contractor that prepared for shipment the volatile oxygen generators thought to have taken down ValuJet Flight 592, killing 110, in 1996.
SabreTech was convicted on eight counts of reckless handling of hazardous materials in December 1999. It also faces murder and manslaughter charges filed by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office. However, some aviation insiders say the SabreTech case might persuade people with important information -- such as Chacon -- to remain silent for fear of being prosecuted.
In any event, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has authority under a federal statute to subpoena an aircraft owner to testify in cases where a death has occurred.
"And it doesn't mean it has to be in the United States," said Aaron Podhurst, a prominent Miami attorney who specializes in international and aviation law. "It's very crucial to find out who did what and why." The Federal Aviation Administration says it has been communicating with Chacon's attorney, Michael Moulis of Fort Lauderdale. Moulis has declined to comment.
Butler said he has several questions and Chacon, who co-owns Blackhawk International Airways with his son Erik, may be the only one who can answer them.
One is whether Chacon, of Pembroke Pines, dispatched pilot Luis Morales to Marsh Harbour, expecting to pick up only five passengers. If so, authorities want to know the exact scenario that led to eight members of Aaliyah's entourage boarding the plane. The three additional passengers and their baggage represented hundreds of pounds that Morales wasn't counting on. Some witnesses said Morales, who had started working for Blackhawk only a day before the accident, was pressured into allowing the additional people on board. But investigators say they have been unable to substantiate that. Butler said the plane's maintenance logs are important, and only Chacon can produce them. Because Morales, 30, of Fort Lauderdale, was not authorized to conduct the flight under Blackhawk's charter certificate, Butler wants to know his training history and flight experience.
In addition to Chacon, Butler plans to talk to officials of Atlantic Flight Group, the broker that set up the flights for Aaliyah's group to fly from Opa-locka Airport to the Bahamas.
Mike Keister, an official of Atlantic Flight Group, said only, "I am cooperating with officials. I'd like to clear the air." Pilots and federal officials say even if Morales was expecting to pick up five people in the Bahamas, it was his responsibility as the pilot in command to either say no to the additional passengers or to carefully check the weight and balance. "Somehow or another, his judgment broke down," said Owen Gassaway, owner of Florida Airmotive, the company that loaded fuel onto the Cessna 402B for its fatal trip.
Gassaway said Chacon called his company on that Saturday and asked that 78 gallons of fuel be pumped on board the plane while it was parked at Lantana Airport. The fuel order is an important clue that Chacon didn't anticipate a big charter party in the Bahamas -- otherwise, he would not have asked for the extra gallons, which translated to 468 more pounds of weight. The plane already had about 115 gallons on board, more than enough to make the trip from Lantana to Marsh Harbour and then to Opa-locka Airport, where Aaliyah and crew wanted to be dropped off.
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