By Jill Smolowe
Updated September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

At 22, Aaliyah was a work in progress. A sensuous performer whose sultry vocals had taken her to the top of the pop charts, she already had two Grammy nominations to her credit, two platinum albums and a newly released third heading the same way. But the New York-born, Detroit-bred diva sought a higher purpose than selling lots of records. Since her memorable screen debut in last year’s thriller Romeo Must Die, she had signed to appear in two Matrix sequels and finished shooting the title role in Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned. When PEOPLE asked her in July if she would ultimately have to choose between film and song, Aaliyah said, “I hope not. I want the public to look at me as an entertainer so I don’t have to choose, especially not right now. I really just want to do it all.”

That ambition will never be fulfilled. On Aug. 25, after spending three days with 58 cast and crew members on and around the Bahamian island of Abaco, shooting takes for her new “Rock the Boat” video, Aaliyah and eight others boarded a twin-engine Cessna 402 Businessliner bound for Opa-locka, Fla. At 6:50 p.m. the plane lifted off from Marsh Harbour International Airport, rose little more than 40 feet, banked left—then nose-dived into a marsh and burst into flame.

When emergency teams arrived at the muddy scene minutes later, they found Aaliyah some 20 feet from the fuselage, curled on her left side. She and five others had died instantly; three passengers who survived impact did not survive the night. “Bodies were all about,” says Marsh Harbour mortician Ernest Scott, who wrapped the deceased in fire blankets, then placed them in canvas body bags. “I’ve been on some gruesome ones, but this one was bad.”

In the days after the crash, the list of unanswered questions seemed only to lengthen. There was confusion about whether the Cessna, registered to Skystream, Inc., had been operated by Blackhawk International Airways Corp. Both companies track to Gilbert Chacon, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla. On Aug. 28 Randy Butler of the Bahamas Department of Civil Aviation said that investigation authorities have been unable to find and interview Chacon. Butler also said that neither Skystream nor Blackhawk has legal approval to operate charters into the Bahamas. Subsequently Chacon’s attorney Michael Moulis said, “I am going to hire a Bahamian attorney to look into that.”

Meanwhile, press reports swirled that an engine had failed and that the plane had been overloaded with a capacity load of nine passengers, plus their personal luggage. Abaco’s acting police superintendent Leeland Russell says that the 10-man team of Bahamian and U.S. investigators will not know for weeks, maybe months, whether speculation about weight and/or engine problems is fact.

By then, Aaliyah (pronounced ah-LEE-a) will have been laid to rest in White Plains, N.Y., beside her grandmother Mintis L. Hicks Hankerson, to whom she dedicated her self-titled new album. Early last week Aaliyah’s parents, Diane and Michael Haughton, who co-managed their daughter’s 11-year career, huddled in a hotel near Aaliyah’s Manhattan apartment on Central Park West with relatives and close friends, waiting for son Rashad, 24, an aspiring screenwriter, to return from Australia and for Aaliyah’s body to be flown in from Nassau on Aug. 28. (Details of her funeral arrangements were not released.) “Her parents are devastated,” says Aaliyah’s cousin Jomo Hankerson, 31, president of Blackground Records, which produced her albums. “She was the princess of the family, our baby girl.”

The Haughtons, both 50, who live in White Plains, had been fixing up Aaliyah’s apartment in anticipation of her arrival when the phone rang Saturday evening. Choreographer Fatima Robinson was on the line from the Bahamas. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” says Robinson. “I didn’t want them to hear it on the news.”

Usually when Aaliyah (called Li Li by loved ones) traveled, she was accompanied by her brother Rashad or her cousin Jomo, whose father, Barry Hankerson, founded Blackground. “We were always there to protect her, my pops and me,” said a teary Jomo. “This is one situation I can’t fix.”

Aaliyah’s boyfriend, Roc-a-Fella Records CEO Damon Dash, 30, was among those who grieved with the family. “He’s not doing well at all,” says his publicist Lizzie Grubman. “They were truly best friends.” On Aug. 28 on MTV News, Dash said, “We were definitely going to be married as soon as she had time…. My heart is broken.”

Aaliyah herself declined to speak publicly about Dash. Indeed, it was her penchant for keeping her love life secret that stirred the only scandal of her career. In 1994, the year Aaliyah, then 15, released her teasingly titled debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, she also reportedly exchanged marriage vows in Rosemont, Ill., with hip-hop star R. Kelly, then 27. When Vibe magazine produced a copy of the marriage license in 1995, she responded, “I’m not married. That’s all I really want to say about it.” Last week the Cook County clerk’s office declined to confirm whether or not such a license exists. In the wake of the plane crash, R. Kelly said through a publicist, “We are very sad. We are praying for her family.”

The days and hours preceding the crash had been happy and productive ones for Aaliyah. Work on the “Rock the Boat” video had begun in Miami on Aug. 22 with a nine-hour shoot on a soundstage, followed by a late-night trip to a local outdoor pool, where Aaliyah was filmed underwater in a sheer black dress with a long train. “At first she was real nervous,” says production assistant Norman Sadler, 33. “Once she got comfortable, she was in the water for four hours. She was a real pro.”

The next day, the entourage flew out of Opa-locka Airport, 11 miles north of Miami, on two flights chartered with Sky Limo of Fort Lauderdale. Eleven people left at 12:30 p.m.; Aaliyah, dressed in sweatpants and a tank top, and eight others departed at 3:45 p.m. Both groups were flown on the same Fairchild Metro III. Sky Limo president Tom Conlan says that production equipment, props and wardrobe were ferried separately on two DC-3s and a Cessna Caravan. That cargo, which weighed nearly 15,000 lbs., took up “a room as big as this,” he said, indicating the scope of his 20-ft.-by-20-ft. office.

That day and the next, the crew filmed on the beaches of the secluded Treasure Cay Resort. At night, Aaliyah and her senior staff stayed in luxurious $325-a-day two-bedroom villas, elevated above the khaki-colored sands on pedestals. At around 8 the morning of Aug. 25, Aaliyah and eight dancers set sail aboard Fat Cat, a 74½-ft. private yacht. As they cruised back and forth between the towns of Marsh Harbour and Hopetown, they repeated their dance routine some 30 times while cameras on several boats and a helicopter filmed. “As tired as she was, Aaliyah was always goofing around, joking and smiling,” says makeup artist Stacey Mossop.

At 4:30 p.m. Aaliyah left the yacht to fly back to Opa-locka. Mossop, 32, who was supposed to fly out that day but was staying behind to shoot some final takes with the eight dancers, says that right before leaving Aaliyah “came up from underneath the deck. She thanked every one of us.”

Charter pilot Claude Sawyer, 25, who was clearing land next to the airport property, was perhaps the crash’s only witness. “It happened fairly quickly—just seconds,” he says. The plane lifted from the 5,000-ft. runway, rose above the trees, veered left, then plunged. Sawyer saw no flames while the Cessna was airborne. “What I saw was a ball of fire after it was below the trees,” he says. The impact destroyed the Cessna’s nose, severed its wings and broke the fuselage into three pieces.

Emergency personnel found pilot Luis Antonio Morales III, 30, dead at the controls, and Aaliyah’s bodyguard Scott Gallin, 41, barely alive in one of the fuselage remnants. “Man, I need something to drink,” Gallin told mortician Ernest Scott. Aaliyah and the other six passengers—hairstylists Anthony Dodd, 34, and Eric Forman, 29; video production director Douglas Kratz, 28; makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, 32; Blackground Records executive Gina Smith, 29; and Keith Wallace, 49—lay on the ground, five of them badly burned. (Wallace, one of mom Diane Haughton’s closest friends, had been serving as Aaliyah’s surrogate parent on the trip.) Of the three who survived impact, one died at the Marsh Harbour Clinic, one died en route to Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, and the third arrived in a coma and died at 3:30 a.m.

At the time of her death, Aaliyah was following a rigorous schedule. In addition to promoting her new album and filming Damned (which will be released early next year), she told PEOPLE that she was “attached to another film, a Sparkle remake that Whitney Houston’s company is producing.” (See p. 49 for highlights from that interview, which went to press just prior to her death.) The long hours never seemed to faze her. “She exuded confidence without being arrogant or unpleasant,” says MTV producer Curtis Waller, who first met Aaliyah in ’94. “She was fortunate and she knew it.”

Her strong work ethic and upbeat attitude were apparent early on. At age 11, she found value in losing a Star Search competition. “It taught me about rejection,” Aaliyah said in July. “You are not going to win or get the part all the time.” That year she enjoyed a five-night run in Las Vegas performing with Gladys Knight, former wife of Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson. Last week Knight said in a statement that Aaliyah “had a refreshing outlook for one so young, with true respect for her art and her elders.”

As her wattage increased, Aaliyah still maintained a 4.0 average and a reputation for being a normal kid at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts. “She was very down-to-earth,” says classmate Mark Terry, 23. She invited her entire class to perform in an MTV video and asked several classmates to dance with her on tour. To the end she loved to play video games and laser tag and hang out with girlfriends.

After receiving her first Grammy nomination in ’99 for “Are You That Somebody” from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, she made her break for the silver screen. “Aaliyah wanted to do everything,” says Jomo Hankerson. “She dreamed of Oscars and she dreamed of Grammys.” Lora Kennedy, senior vice president of talent at Warner Bros. Pictures, remembers Aaliyah’s Romeo audition. “[Executive producer] Joel Silver looked at me, I looked at him,” she says. “We instantly knew she was a star.”

Despite her easy romance with the camera, Aaliyah kept a low profile. At her Manhattan and Detroit addresses, some neighbors did not know she lived nearby. “She wasn’t always thriving on the attention,” says Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Spin. “She didn’t do a lot of press.” Her early public hazing apparently persuaded her to keep reporters at bay. “She didn’t want to use her private life to sell her work; she wanted her work to speak for itself,” says Vibe editor-in-chief Emil Wilbekin. “She reminded me of an old Hollywood entertainer—very glamorous, very mysterious. She had potential to be the next Whitney, Madonna or Jennifer Lopez.”

Perhaps. But Aaliyah was quite content being herself and following her own script. “Everybody knows that the weekend is totally mine,” she told PEOPLE. “When I’ve had enough, I have to take a break. I tell them I need a week or two to just be me.” For one so young, she had a rare ability to savor every moment. “She put a lot into her 22 years,” says Jomo. “She led an absolutely charmed life.”

Jill Smolowe

Don Sider in Abaco, Ericka Sóuter, Jennifer Longley and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City, Siobhan Morrissey and Linda Trischitta in Miami, Lori Rozsa in Nassau, Alison Singh Gee and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles and Trine Tsouderos in Chicago