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Kennedy Plane Crash

JFK Jr., His Wife Feared Dead

Crash: Rescuers comb waters into the night off Martha's Vineyard for signs of plane piloted by the son of the slain 35th president. Also on board were Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister. Debris is found.

July 18, 1999|RONALD J. OSTROW and JOHN J. GOLDMAN and PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

AQUINNAH, Mass. — Rescuers desperately scoured the ocean off Martha's Vineyard into the night Saturday in the fading hope that they might find John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister after the single-engine plane he was piloting disappeared and plunged into the Atlantic en route here.

The son of the slain 35th president of the United States, a relatively inexperienced pilot, had planned to stop briefly on the island before heading on to nearby Cape Cod for a family wedding scheduled for Saturday.

Hours after his Piper Saratoga was reported missing, debris that the Coast Guard said was from the plane washed ashore on a beach on the western tip of this island, but the search continued for the 38-year-old scion of a political dynasty devastated by tragedy. Aboard with him on the small red-and-white plane, which departed from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., was his 33-year-old wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren.

"It is our intention to keep searching. We are in the search-and-rescue phase," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee said just before dusk. ". . . Each one of these cases is different. I can tell you miraculous stories of people surviving. We are not ready to give up yet."

Coast Guard Cmdr. Mike Lapinski summed up the gravity of the situation: "The water is not very forgiving."

As darkness approached, the search vessel Rude, equipped with side-scanning sonar that can find wreckage on the ocean's bottom, was added to the flotilla. The Rude, dispatched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was used to find pieces of TWA Flight 800, which blew up in the sky off Long Island three years ago Saturday.

Later, the National Transportation Safety Board said it would join the investigation into the crash. As helicopters with spotlights flew over the debris field, darkness clearly complicated the search.

As the evening wore on, most of the helicopters were grounded until daybreak. An Air National Guard helicopter remained aloft, searching the sea with infrared sensors. The forecast called for sunshine and haze today.

By daylight Saturday, a small armada of ships, planes and helicopters joined in the search. Two Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, a helicopter from the New York Air National Guard, a twin-engine medium-range aircraft, 15 single-engine planes from the Civil Air Patrol, an 82-foot cutter, a 41-foot utility boat plus inflatable Coast Guard craft were just some of the rescue equipment sent to the scene. "It is a fairly extensive surface fleet," Larrabee said.

Searchers initially focused on a 1,000-square-mile stretch of ocean along the flight path, but the hunt narrowed to the waters off Gay Head Beach on this fashionable resort island after a headrest swatch of carpeting and other debris from the Piper washed ashore. A prescription bottle belonging to Kennedy's wife also was discovered, authorities said.

Kennedy, who wrenched the nation's heart as a 3-year-old saluting his father's coffin, had planned to touch down briefly at the Martha's Vineyard Airport to drop off Lauren Bessette, whose waterlogged suitcase was found.

He then planned to fly to Hyannis Port, Mass., where family members had gathered for the wedding of the late Robert F. Kennedy's daughter Rory. The wedding was postponed. Priests held two Masses as the stunned family waited for definitive word.

Family Members Call the FAA

At 2 a.m. Saturday, as clouds of tragedy once again gathered over the Kennedys' seaside compound, worried family members reported the plane missing to the Federal Aviation Administration.

After making sure the six-seater Piper Saratoga that Kennedy had recently purchased hadn't made an emergency landing en route to New England, a massive air and sea search was launched.

Late in the afternoon, the Coast Guard in Boston confirmed that debris in the ocean off Martha's Vineyard belonged to Kennedy's plane. Some washed ashore, within a mile of the island home that Kennedy inherited from his late mother.

"We are in very close contact with the next of kin. We are simply still searching," Larrabee said at a news conference in Boston.

"The debris we are finding is debris that is floating," he added. "It is being spotted by aircraft and being brought in by Coast Guard boats."

Kennedy, who launched and served as editor in chief of the political magazine George, had received his pilot's license only about a year ago. Wearing a white T-shirt, he boarded the Piper in New Jersey shortly after 8 p.m. Friday, fellow pilots said.

The aircraft took off and made a right turn toward the Northeast.

Kyle Bailey, a 25-year-old retail analyst, said he saw Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, who was dressed in black, arrive in a Lincoln Town Car. Her husband, who drove up in a white Honda convertible, preceded her.

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