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KENNEDY PLANE CRASH

Kennedy Crash Presumed Fatal as Search Shifts

Tragedy: JFK Jr., his wife and her sister could not have survived, officials determine. Underwater salvage efforts off Martha's Vineyard are expected to intensify today.

July 19, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN and ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

AQUINNAH, Mass. — Search crews frantically looking for survivors or significant wreckage of the small plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law found neither for a second day Sunday, and gave up on finding any of the three alive.

After President Clinton asked for prayers for the missing travelers and the Kennedy clan said Mass at their summer compound on nearby Cape Cod, officials directing the search on land, sea and from the air Sunday night said they had reclassified their effort from "search and rescue" to "search and recovery."

"I have spent some very painful moments with the families tonight," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee. "It was very difficult for me to share this information with them. But I think they understood it.

"This is not the result we were looking for."

The announcement culminated a weekend in which the nation had already begun mourning yet another promising son of one of its first families. Handsome, witty and intent on making his own way in the world, Kennedy, 38, the editor of George magazine, seemed to combine the charismatic drive of his slain father and the enigmatic dignity of his late mother.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 24, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Water tribute--A front-page picture in The Times on Monday showed a woman placing hydrangeas in the ocean at Hyannis Port, Mass., as rescuers searched for the missing John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law. Because of erroneous information provided by Associated Press, the caption said that the flowers were lilacs.

Even while dashing any final hopes there might be survivors, authorities said they plan to intensify underwater salvage efforts today 4 1/2 miles southwest of this vacation island of Martha's Vineyard.

Larrabee said the Coast Guard had detected only two "potential targets" on Sunday, however, not necessarily "the location of an aircraft." And a report earlier Sunday that a C-130 search plane had detected the plane's emergency locater transmitter proved unfounded.

Officials had grown hopeful of finding the wreckage when they thought they heard "one ping" from the transmitter in waters off Gay Head, near "the debris field" where some remnants of the plane and passenger belongings were discovered over the weekend, including a headrest and foam insulation.

Officials of the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, which promised a "detailed, painstaking investigation" of the crash, also disclosed that the last radar tracking of the single-engine Piper Saratoga, which was piloted by Kennedy, showed that it descended 700 feet in less than half a minute before it disappeared from view Friday night.

Even so, authorities continued to classify the effort as a rescue until after dark Sunday, leaving open the possibility that one or more of the plane's occupants--Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34--might yet be found in the 68-degree waters.

But about 9:40 p.m. EDT, Larrabee acknowledged that "this case is now 48 hours old. . . . Survivability [in such waters] is probably not going to be much greater than 18 hours. . . . We offer our condolences to the families of the loved ones."

The 251-foot Navy salvage ship Grasp was headed to Martha's Vineyard from Virginia to assist.

Earlier, in a short statement from the lawn of the White House, a grim Clinton said: "For more than 40 years now, the Kennedy family has inspired Americans to public service, strengthened our faith in the future and moved our nation forward. Throughout it all, they have suffered much and given more."

Minutes after Clinton spoke, Coast Guard and NTSB officials, speaking from a new command headquarters at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, released more details of their investigation into the flight that left Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., at 8:38 p.m. EDT Friday.

John and Carolyn Kennedy were headed for the Hyannis Port wedding of his cousin Rory, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, but planned to stop first on Martha's Vineyard to drop off Lauren Bessette.

Robert Pearce, who will head the inquiry, said the plane flew at an altitude of 5,600 feet until it reached the Rhode Island area and began its descent. At 9:40 p.m., in hazy skies, radar detected the plane at about 2,500 feet, he said, 10 to 11 miles off the coast.

In the last radar tracking, just 29 seconds later, the plane was down to 1,800 feet and "there was no further recorded radar," Pearce said. The descent was "within the airplane's capabilities," he added, and there was no communication with the pilot "that would indicate any kind of distress."

"We are at the very beginning of what will be a detailed, painstaking investigation," said NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. "Everyone is tempted to speculate on what happened. The answer is simple: At this point we do not know. . . . There is even a possibility we will never know."

In the days ahead, the NTSB, other government agencies and representatives of the Piper Saratoga's manufacturer will examine every aspect of the flight: the record of Kennedy as a relatively inexperienced pilot, weather along the route and the plane's structure and history.

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