By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff and Carlos Montje, Globe Correspondent, 07/18/99
The call came in to the Federal Aviation Administration at about 2 a.m.
yesterday: an airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., expected to arrive on
Martha's Vineyard just before 10 last night was four hours overdue.
It took nearly an hour and a half longer before an initial search was
launched and his disappearance officially noted.
By dawn, hundreds of military and civilian rescuers had begun to scan more
than 6,000 square miles of ocean and coastline from Long Island to Martha's
Vineyard, searching for clues to the aircraft's fate.
At about 1:30 p.m., in the surf near Aquinnah, they'd found some: a
headrest, bits of carpet, an aircraft support with a wheel attached, and a
canvas bag with identification from Kennedy's sister-in-law -- one of the
passengers on board the Piper Saratoga II.
By that point, Kennedy's plane, which took off from Caldwell Airfield in
Fairfield, N.J., had been missing for more than 17 hours.
Judging by the debris, Coast Guard officials believe the airplane had
ditched into the Atlantic, perhaps 17 miles short of the airport in West
Tisbury. Kennedy and his passengers, wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister
Lauren Bessette, were presumed dead.
"There's always hope, but unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of
evidence, you have to be prepared for anything that happens,'' said Coast
Guard Lt. Gary L. Jones.
The search, which included more than 20 helicopters, jets and light
airplanes and several Coast Guard cutters and boats, was scheduled to
continue through tonight, with sonar equipment brought in from a nearby
federal research agency.
But without more wreckage, or a signal from the plane's on-board radio
transponder, one officer said, trying to find it in such a massive search
field was frustrating. Kennedy also had not filed a flight plan, a routine
omission but one that may have delayed the start of the search.
"All we saw were waves breaking on rocks,'' said Greg Buonomo, a Suffolk
County, N.Y., police officer who flew a Bell 206 helicopter from Islip,
N.Y. to participate in the search.
"There was nothing out there,'' said his partner, Steve DeMeo. "If there
is a search, you hope to find something.''
The long delay before the start of the search prompted some pointed
questions to Air Force officials at a Pentagon briefing.
But Lt. Col. Steve Roark said searchers had not received a radio signal
from the downed craft and decided to follow procedures and wait for
daylight before beginning an aerial search.
"We look at possible other landing sites ... rather than just sending out
aircraft willy-nilly,'' he said.
Roark also said the amount of resources devoted to the search wasn't
influenced by Kennedy's celebrity status, as the son of President John F.
"We treat all the searches the same,'' he said. "There is no difference
between celebrity and non-celebrity.''
The six-seat Piper Saratoga had left an airport in New Jersey at about 8:30
p.m. Friday and was apparently tracked by FAA radar officers as it
approached the airport in West Tisbury until as late as 9:39 p.m.
Flying conditions were considered marginal because of a haze over the
water, although visibility was more than 3 miles, and stars and a crescent
moon could be seen.
Still, Kennedy was flying under what are known as "visual flight rules''
and wasn't in constant communication with the airport tower. Controllers
likely assumed the plane had landed safely when it left the screen,
As a result, officials didn't began to receive formal warnings until around
2 a.m., they said, when family members contacted the Federal Aviation
Administration with news the plane was overdue.
The first search aircraft took off around 7:30 a.m., the Air Force said.
About 15 Civil Air Patrol planes were also dispatched, focusing on areas
along the coastline and inland areas near Kennedy's presumed flight path.
Initially, searchers focused on the coordinates of a brief, weak radio
emergency beacon, recorded at just after 2 a.m. on Long Island, N.Y. But
that proved to be a false alarm, and by midmorning the search had been
expanded to include the entire length of the plane's planned route from New
Jersey up the coast.
After searching for hours without results, a rare piece of hard data turned
up: a black canvas bag, floating in the surf near Aquinnah shortly after
noon. A group of friends sunbathing on the beach spotted the luggage.
The bag's ID tag contained a Morgan Stanley business card belonging to
"It was a terrible sinking feeling,'' said Damon Seligson, 30, a Boston
lawyer who said he swam out to retrieve the luggage. "I felt my heart
burst out of my chest. It was just terrible.''
The find helped direct searchers to areas much closer to Martha's Vineyard;
by this evening, authorities said they had concentrated on an area 17 miles
southwest of the island, where a debris field had begun to surface.
Another grim find came around 1:30 p.m. when a Coast Guard crew working in
a small boat near the coast of Aquinnah found pieces of carpet and the
headrest. Coast Guard Lt. Gary L. Jones said the items were "consistent
with a plane crash.''
Jones also said bits of identifiable luggage had been found, but he would
not give specifics.
In an ironic twist, the wreckage was found less than a mile from the estate
of Kennedy's late mother, Jacqueline Kennnedy Onassis, on a point of land
near Philbin Beach.
On the island, police used four-wheel all-terrain vehicles and an
inflatable boat to comb beaches and inland areas, and cleared beachgoers
from Philbin Beach and surrounding areas to ease the burden on searchers.
Mindful of the apparent accident, few complained.
"It's pretty sad,'' said Dailyn Higgins. "It's the kind of tragedy that
this family always seems to be cursed with.''
"I really feel terrible for the family,'' said another beach-goer, Lauren
Belafonte, a sales representative at Stuff At Night magazine who remembers
seeing Caroline Bassett while a student at Boston University.
Matthew Brelis, John Yemma, Ellen O'Brien and Beth Carney of the Globe
staff and Globe correspondent Jennifer Babson contributed to this report.