Aaliyah: Eric Johnson
September 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

This past May, the budding actress and R&B sensation Aaliyah sat in a lower Manhattan eatery to discuss the release of her imminent third album, ”Aaliyah,” and her starring roles in the films ”Queen of the Damned” and the two ”Matrix” sequels. Sipping coffee and picking at a piece of pastry, the demure 22-year-old (born Aaliyah Dana Haughton) seemed the picture of well-adjusted, non-neurotic superstardom, speaking of showbiz as her calling: ”I’m living my dream” and sharing her ambition of becoming a role model. ”I tell my young fans that you can look up to me for the things I’ve achieved and am trying to achieve,” she said, ”but realize I’m human, too.”

And humans, no matter how famous, are still mortal. On Aug. 25, the woman who was beginning to live up to the promise of her name (which means ”highest, most exalted one” in Arabic) died on impact in a fiery plane crash on Abaco Island in the Bahamas, which also claimed the lives of the pilot and seven members of her entourage, including manager Keith Wallace, 49, Blackground Records exec Gina Smith, 29, and makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, 32.

Just a few hours earlier, the singer had finished shooting a Hype Williams-directed video for her next single, ”Rock the Boat.” Though she had originally planned to fly back to the U.S. the next day on a bigger plane, Aaliyah’s team instead chartered a twin-engine Cessna 402B to carry the singer and some of her crew to Opa-locka, Fla., near Miami. After a precarious takeoff around 6:30 p.m., the plane veered sharply to the left, plummeted to the ground 200 feet from the runway, and burst into flames.

Bahamian officials, joined by four U.S. aviation experts, were still investigating the crash and had not determined a cause at press time. Early reports indicate that the plane may have suffered engine failure and may have been overloaded with too many passengers and too much baggage.

”The airplane normally holds eight people, not nine,” notes Capt. Linda Greco, a Houston-based aviation expert, adding that the Cessna could have been modified. ”The baggage allowance for the aircraft is estimated at 1,340 pounds, so with nine passengers and baggage, this would most likely be exceeded.”

While the pilot is ultimately responsible for all decisions involving baggage, passengers, and flight safety, not all aviators are accustomed to handling celebrity entourages. ”Industry people can be hard — ‘I want my stuff!”’ says Kevin Taylor, a BET producer who was filming a documentary of the video shoot and considered boarding the plane himself. ”On the flight to Miami [earlier that week], one of Aaliyah’s bags turned up missing. Of all the bags they brought, Aaliyah’s was the only one missing. So the idea of saying, ‘Leave your stuff behind’ probably wasn’t even an option.” (Police reports said the plane was owned by Skystream, Inc., which could not be reached for comment.)

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