One late Saturday afternoon, just two weeks before her death, twenty-two-year-old Aaliyah walked from a black Mercedes-Benz to a small helicopter for a short flight from New Jersey to East Hampton, New York. She was on her way to the summer house that Jay-Z shared with her boyfriend of a year, Damon Dash, Jay's partner in Roc-a-Fella Records. She wore a dark-green hoodie and matching shorts so small they showed off most of her long, curvy legs, down to the little treble-clef tattoo on her right ankle. She wore all-white Nike Air Force Ones with white socks. Around her neck hung a small Roc-a-Fella pendant. In her left arm she clutched a large, fluffy pillow in a black pillowcase. She got on the helicopter, nuzzled into Dash's shoulder and went to sleep. I was there reporting a story on Jay-Z, and I was struck by Aaliyah's presence, the way she was in person, as she was onstage – sexy without losing her girlish sweetness. Throughout the weekend, she was quiet but not quite shy, quick to flash her wide, bright smile, quick to laugh at Dash's jokes and quick to dance with him in the middle of the living room when Michael Jackson's Off the Wall came on. On Sunday, she slept hours longer than everyone else, on a bed strewn with rose petals. She and Dash seemed very much in love.
Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born January 16th, 1979, in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Detroit with her family at age five. She grew up singing with her mother, and at eleven opened for her aunt Gladys Knight in Las Vegas. She studied dance at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts and earned a 4.0 GPA. At fourteen, Aaliyah released an album produced by Chicago R&B kingpin R. Kelly, called Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, which sold more than 1 million copies. Reports surfaced that she had married Kelly when she was only fifteen and he was twenty-seven; Aaliyah denied it, although a marriage certificate was found in a Chicago county clerk's office.
In 1996 came her second album, One in a Million, which sold 2 million copies and launched its producer-songwriter team, two largely unknown figures named Timbaland and Missy Elliott, to stardom. Aaliyah began modeling for Tommy Hilfiger and taking acting lessons, which led to a starring role in Romeo Must Die (2000) as well as the role of Akasha in Queen of the Damned, slated for release next spring. She had also been cast in both of the upcoming sequels to The Matrix, which she had started shooting this summer in L.A.
Her third record, Aaliyah, released in July, was already gold when she flew to Abaco Island in the Bahamas to finish the video for the album's third single, "Rock the Boat," directed by Hype Williams. On Saturday, August 25th, she boarded a ten-seat twin-engine Cessna 402B bound for Opa-Locka, Florida, with the pilot, Luis Morales III, and seven members of her crew: video-production director Douglas Kratz, 28; bodyguard Scott Gallin, 41; hairstylists Anthony Dodd, 34, and Eric Forman, 29; Blackground Records executive Gina Smith, 30; makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, 32; and friend Keeth Wallace, 49. Less than a minute after it took off, the plane crashed just a few hundred feet from the runway. Aaliyah was among six passengers dead at the scene; three others passed away hours later.
Though Bahamian investigators have not officially determined what caused the crash, police initially speculated that the plane foundered because it had been overloaded with equipment that brought the total weight to more than 700 pounds over the aircraft's specified 6,300-pound limit.
Aaliyah was scheduled to leave the island the next day, but when her part in the video was completed she decided to leave early. "Aaliyah left midproduction, so we were still shooting when she left," Williams says. He challenges the contention that the plane was overloaded. "Those rumors about there being camera equipment on the plane, they're all false because when they left, they left us in the middle of the ocean still in production. Anything that's not the truth – it makes it harder for people to understand."
Reports have surfaced that the passengers argued with pilot Morales over whether the plane was overloaded, although it is the pilot's responsibility to make this determination. Jomo Hankerson, Aaliyah's cousin and the president of Blackground Records, her label, is angered by reports that the passengers argued with Morales. "I don't subscribe to the scenario that the passengers of a plane dictate them to overload the plane," he says. "That seems unfathomable. In the airline business, safety has to always come first."
Though the cargo's weight was the initial focus of investigation, the days that followed brought troubling reports about thirty-year-old pilot Morales and the Fort Lauderdale company that chartered the plane, Blackhawk International Airways. In the past three years, Blackhawk has received several citations for safety violations, including a warning for not adequately testing employees for drugs. Morales' record is also spotty: Less than two weeks before the crash, he pleaded no contest to charges of possession of crack cocaine and attempting to sell stolen airplane parts, and was put on probation. He began working at Blackhawk two days before the accident, and the company hadn't licensed him to operate the plane used for Aaliyah's flight.
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