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John F. Kennedy Jr., wife, feared dead

Debris found off coast of Martha's Vineyard

By Mitchell Zuckoff, Globe Staff, 07/18/99

John F. Kennedy Jr., who crawled out from under his father's Oval Office desk into a life of tragedy-tinged celebrity, was presumed dead today along with his wife and her sister when the small plane he was piloting apparently crashed off Martha's Vineyard.

Hope that the glamorous and free-spirited member of the nation's most chronicled political family had simply made an unscheduled landing dimmed when wreckage and luggage were found off Philbin's Beach at the eastern-most end of the island. A short walk down the beach is the Vineyard home that Kennedy and his sister inherited from their mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

No bodies were found, and an intensive search involving the Coast Guard, Air Force, Air National Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Civil Air Patrol, and scores of private vessels continued into the night.

(At a televised press conference Saturday night it was announced that personal items bearing the name of Lauren Bessette had been found as had a prescription bottle bearing the name of Carolyn Kennedy.

(It was also disclosed by assistant Cape and Islands' district attorney Michael O`Keefe that an aircraft seat similar to that in the missing plane had been found as had a piece of landing gear and a wheel.

(Officials said that the Coast Guard had concluded its air search for the night and would resume the search in the morning. However, an Air National Guard plane would continue search operations.

(Earlier it was learned that the search operation now was being classified as a recovery operation.)

Investigators said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash, but preliminary efforts are focusing on Kennedy's becoming disoriented because of poor visibility and losing control of the plane, fuel mismanagement, and loss of control after doing a fly-by of the family property.

Kennedy, 38, a onetime Manhattan prosecutor who left the law to become publisher of "George'' magazine, was accompanied by his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her older sister, Lauren Bessette. They were aboard his single-engine Piper Saratoga II HP, a plane the novice pilot had purchased just 10 weeks ago.

Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette planned to drop off her sister on Martha's Vineyard, then head to Hyannis for the wedding of a cousin, Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The wedding, scheduled for 6 tonight, was postponed, and plans for a celebratory Mass were replaced by the familiar and familial sound of mournful prayers.

The entourage had set out about 8:30 p.m. Friday from Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J., and was expected to land at Martha's Vineyard Airport by 10 p.m. Kennedy was not required to file a flight plan, and had not done so.

Kennedy, who received his solo pilot license last year, took off into a hazy sky from the New Jersey airport, and some pilots questioned whether he was experienced enough to fly under such conditions. Kennedy was not certified to fly solely via instruments, and would have had to rely on visual cues.

Kyle Bailey, an experienced private pilot who also had planned to fly from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard Friday night, changed his mind when he saw the sky.

"I felt it was too hazy and I didn't want to chance it over open water,'' said Bailey, who said he saw the Kennedy group at the airport, with Kennedy arriving in a white convertible and wearing a baseball hat backwards.

Bailey said he noticed Kennedy was limping around the plane during his preflight check; Kennedy had injured his foot several weeks ago in a paragliding accident.

Kennedy made no voice contact with the Martha's Vineyard Airport, but his six-seat, red-and-white plane was last spotted on radar at 9:39 p.m. on what appeared to be a final approach to the landing strip.

A review of radar records showed the plane was 17 miles west/southwest of the airport at an altitude of 2,200 feet. On the next radar pass, 12 seconds later, the plane had dropped to 1,300 feet. Twelve seconds later, the plane was nowhere to be seen, sources with the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The precipitous drop in altitude apparently did not trigger action by flight controllers because, without a flight plan and without voice contact, they had no reason to pay the aircraft any heed and might not have even noticed the drop, according to FAA officials and authorities on flight procedures.

While family and friends held vigil at the Kennedys' Hyannisport compound, the feared death of the man known to the world as "John-John'' added a sad new chapter to a family history in which glory and sorrow alternate like day and night.

The victories have come mainly from voters, while the losses have come from even more capricious sources, including assassins, drugs, and the trees of Aspen. Even before Friday's apparent plane crash, the family has suffered the fate of Icarus before: Kennedy's uncle, Navy Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., died in 1944 when his bomber exploded over England; his aunt, Kathleen (Kennedy) Harrington, was killed in 1948 when the plane she was aboard crashed in the mountains of France.

Fears about John F. Kennedy Jr., his 33-year-old wife, and her sister began in earnest sometime after midnight.

At 2:15 a.m., a friend of the Kennedys called the Coast Guard station in Woods Hole to say Kennedy and Bessette were late. Woods Hole called the Coast Guard's Boston station, which in turn called the FAA. The FAA and Air Force then began calling other airports to see if the plane had landed somewhere else or perhaps never took off.

Around the same time, a satellite picked up an emergency beacon signal off Montauk, Long Island. No immediate action was taken because it is standard procedure to wait for additional beacon "hits'' to pinpoint the location of a downed airplane, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Todd Burgun in Boston.

After a second beacon signal was received, a "case'' was opened at 3:28 a.m. by the Air Force's Air Rescue Coordination Center, which oversees searches for missing aircraft. However, it was not known whether the signal had come from Kennedy's plane because the beacon did not have a "signature'' to indicate its source.

At 4:30 a.m., a 41-foot Coast Guard utility vessel began searching the area off Montauk, followed by another utility boat and several larger vessels in the predawn hours. They found nothing. At dawn, the Civil Air Patrol of the US Air Force joined the search with 15 single-engine planes, focusing almost exclusively along the Long Island coastline.

Also in the sky were two Coast Guard H60 Jayhawk helicopters, a Coast Guard Falcon jet, and huge C-130 from the Air National Guard, which provided in-flight air traffic control of the search planes. The same plane was involved in the aftermath of the crash of TWA flight 800, which plunged into nearby waters three years ago to the day.

For nearly 10 hours, the search was spread over a nearly 1,000-square-mile area between the two airports, though much of it was focused around Montauk, Coast Guard officials said.

Asked whether a rescue effort might have been more effective if begun sooner, Lt. Col. Steve Roark of the US Air Force said: "Would it have made a difference? I don't think so, because it was nighttime, and because of our standard search procedures.''

Asked how long the search would continue, Coast Guard Commander Mike Lapinski said: "A lot of things come into play. The Coast Guard is searching for survivors, and any indications there might have been a chance of getting out and surviving and potentially being in the water would lead them to continue. The more signs there are, the longer we search.''

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee said Kennedy's celebrity status had no bearing on the intensity of the search. "Our efforts are consistent with the way we would search for anyone who was lost,'' he said.

Shortly before 1 p.m., the search shifted almost exclusively to the waters off Martha's Vineyard when beachgoers found items linked to Kennedy's plane.

Erin McCarthy, 31, of Boston, was sitting on the beach with her friends when she spotted something in the water. Thinking it might be debris from the crash, her friend Damon Seligson, 30, a Boston lawyer, swam out to get it.

It was a black canvas bag packed with clothes, a bathing suit, cosmetics, a hair dryer with an ID tag that had Lauren Bessette business cards from Morgan Stanley, McCarthy said.

"It was a terrible sinking feeling,'' said Seligson. "I felt my heart burst out of my chest. It was just terrible.''

Gordon Campbell, 34, a private pilot from Greenwich, Conn., said he saw the nose wheel and a part called a "wheel pant'' from a single-engine plane washed up on the beach.

A short time later, searchers turned up a headrest and part of a plane support called a strut, said Coast Guard Lt. Craig Jaramillo.

The plane Kennedy was flying was built in June 1995. He purchased it used from Minir Hussain, a 39-year-old native of Pakistan who runs a furniture factory in New Jersey. Hussain sold it through a broker and said he believed Kennedy paid about $300,000.

Hussain said he was at the Essex County Airport on Friday night and noticed the plane was out of its hangar. He said he immediately became worried when he was told Kennedy was going to be flying on his own.

"It was a risky situation for him to be flying without an instructor because he was not instument-rated to fly on his own,'' Hussain said in a telephone interview. "I know that John was a very good pilot, everyone knew that. But I immediately began to worry because the conditions were not that good.''

Hussian said he had just landed his own plane at the airport and believed that the visibility was not ideal, around six miles. While it was still clear enough to take off without instruments from the airport, he felt that it was "too risky'' for someone without instrument certification to do so.

A high-ranking federal transportation offical said the National Transportation Safety Board had pulled the maintenance records of the plane and found it to be well cared for.

Apparently Kennedy did not fill his tanks prior to departure, but fuel records obtained by the NTSB indicate there were at least 90 gallons on board, plenty of fuel for a single-engine plane to make that trip. However, the plane has two fuel tanks, one in each wing, and a pilot must remember to switch from one to the other before fuel runs out.

Noting the proximity of the wreckage to Jacqueline Onassis' former Vineyard home, the official speculated that Kennedy may have been "buzzing'' the property that he and his sister now own and was caught in a thermal updraft by the Gay Head cliffs.

A thermal updraft would cause the plane to rise suddenly and the normal response of the pilot would be to push the yoke down to lower the nose. Once the plane cleared the updraft, the plane could suddenly dive. At low altitudes, such a move could be catastrophic.

"I can't count the number of times I have seen low-time pilots, with family or friends on board, showing off by buzzing their house and get into trouble,'' the source said. "It is a mistake many low-time pilots make.''

The plane itself was not considered particularly difficult to control.

"The handling characteristics are very benign,'' said Warrent Morningstar, director of media relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a general aviation lobbying group. "It is not the sort of plane you would want to learn to fly in, but it should not be a handful for a low-time pilot who had proper training in the aircraft.''

Phone calls began flooding into the Kennedy compound around 7 a.m. today. President Clinton, who was spending the weekend at Camp David, learned of the disappearance from his chief of staff, John Podesta, and telephoned Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Andrew Cuomo, the head of Housing and Urban Development, who is married to Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of RFK.

Clinton also called JFK Jr.'s sister, Caroline Schlossberg, who was reportedly on vacation out West. She was expected to join the family.

Lauren Bessette Lauren Bessette, sister of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, shown here in a 1982 high school yearbook photo.
(AP File Photo)

"All our prayers and thoughts are with the families of those on board,'' White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said in a statement.

The plane's disappearance came one day before the 30th anniversary of the day Edward Kennedy's car went off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne on a tiny island adjacent to Martha's Vineyard.

In an interview in May 1998, three weeks after he received his pilot's license, Kennedy told USA Today that none of his relatives could be persuaded to fly with him.

"The only person I've been able to get to go up with me, who looks forward to it as much as I do, is my wife,'' he said. "Whenever we want to get away, we can just get in a plane and fly off.''

Among those on the beach when the debris was found was Barbara Rouillard, 46, an office manager from Amesbury. She immediately thought back to a day 36 years earlier.

"My heart was like this when I was little and I was sent home from Catholic school when JFK was shot,'' she said. "My heart felt the same way.''

Matthew Brelis, Stephen Kurkjian, Tatsha Robertson, Anne E. Kornblut, Beth Carney, and Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



 


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