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.
Bailey said that Kennedy came to the suburban airport from New York City almost every Friday accompanied by his flight instructor. Bailey said Kennedy appeared to be limping when he boarded his plane in New Jersey. Other people said he was recovering from a foot fracture sustained in a hang-gliding misadventure and until recently had been in a cast.
Ed Gacin, the owner of a charter business at the airfield, said he had flown from Nantucket Island to Fairfield on Friday night. Gacin said the mist was heavy, but visibility was within the rules governing visual flight navigation of the sort used by Kennedy.
"It was a judgment call," he said when asked whether it was a good or bad decision for Kennedy to have made the flight. "I don't know what kind of a pilot he was. You can have pilots with 10,000 hours who are rotten pilots and pilots with 100 hours who are good ones." He said that Kennedy had been flying out of the airport for about a year.
Other veteran pilots at the field said the lack of a distress call led them to believe that "spatial disorientation" was a prime suspect in the crash.
"You think you're flying straight and in fact you're turning and turning. Your mind plays tricks on you," said Richard Lucas, 37, of Lodi, N.J. "I was in a death spiral just like that."
Kennedy did not file a flight plan as do some pilots. He was not required to file the plan, which can aid searchers in case of emergency.
At 2:15 a.m., the Coast Guard station at Woods Hole, Mass., on Cape Cod was alerted that Kennedy's plane was overdue. The Air Force Rescue Coordinating Center at Langley, Va., officially began its search at 3:28 a.m.
About 3 a.m., a satellite picked up an electronic distress signal near the tip of Long Island. A Coast Guard craft was sent to investigate the signal at 4:28 a.m., but nothing was found.
The FAA reported last contact with the plane--apparently a radar fix--17 miles southwest of Martha's Vineyard as it approached the airport at Edgartown at 9:39 p.m. The aircraft was due to arrive about 10 p.m., the Coast Guard said.
At the Pentagon, a spokesman said the plane never was in radio contact with the control tower at the Vineyard. The Coast Guard said it had no indications of problems with equipment on Kennedy's plane.
The dread of yet another Kennedy calamity quickly spread throughout the nation on a hot summer afternoon. At Yankee Stadium in New York, the public address announcer asked fans to stand for a minute of silent prayer. People watched nonstop television coverage and attended vigils and services around the country. In Montgomery, Ala., St. Peter's Catholic Church scheduled an afternoon Mass for people wanting to pray for the safety of the people on the plane.
President Clinton reached out to members of the family to express his concern. He spoke by phone with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John Kennedy's sister, who had been rafting in the West when she got the news; with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his uncle; and with Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who is married to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
"He wanted to let them know he was thinking about them, that we'll do everything we can and that our thoughts and prayers are with them," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said.
Vice President Al Gore said the news was "a shock to America's spirit" and added that Kennedy "carried his father's legend with a crowning grace." After asking for a moment of prayer at a Latino political conference in Long Beach, where he canceled his prepared speech, Gore called Kennedy "an extraordinary young man in the high noon of his life."
Kennedy lived in Manhattan with his wife.
In an interview with USA Today, in May 1998, Kennedy, then a fledgling pilot, said none of his relatives could be talked into flying 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. "The second it was legal, she came with me."
"Whenever we want to get away, we can just get in a plane and fly off," he added.
After a celebrated bachelorhood, Kennedy on Sept. 21, 1996, married Bessette, a physician's daughter from Connecticut and a former publicist for fashion designer Calvin Klein. Their neighbors in the TriBeCa area of Manhattan prayed for their safe return.
There were prayers also in the offices of George magazine in Times Square, where staffers gathered and waited.
George's staff had already been through an anxious week. A trade publication reported that Hachette Filipacchi, a partner in the venture, was considering whether to walk away from the magazine--whose circulation and ad revenue have recently been flat--at year's end, and rumors swirled through media circles that the magazine was about to fold.
One executive said the staff had been assured that the magazine, with a circulation of 419,000, wasn't going under.
The flight from New Jersey to the Vineyard is about 220 miles, easily within the range of the Piper Saratoga, which is powered by a single Lycoming engine. With a full load the plane can fly about 850 miles.
But unlike commercial airliners, the Piper Saratoga does not carry a flight data recorder.
Police ordered sunbathers off the beach on Martha's Vineyard when the debris was discovered near shore.
The search scene began to quiet soon after sundown, and by midnight it was serene except for the lights from a couple of boats. "It was like L.A. all day--helicopters and planes and noise," said Webb Green, a San Francisco architect who summers in Gay Head.
Well into the night, much later than usual, the tiny airport was alive with charters coming in and flights delayed for hours because of the airspace restrictions.
Larrabee said he was told by the FAA that Kennedy followed normal procedures. "Not following a flight plan is not an unusual event," the Coast Guard admiral said.
Ostrow and Lieberman reported from Martha's Vineyard, Goldman from New York. Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren in Washington, Mark Fritz in New Jersey, Elizabeth Jensen in New York, Tony Olivo in Long Beach and researcher Lynette Ferdinand in New York also contributed to this story.
More on the Crash
* LIFE IN THE LIMELIGHT: A look at John F. Kennedy Jr.'s enduring images, from infancy to editor, in a photo collection. A25
* MEDIA PULL OUT STOPS: The networks jettisoned their regular programming, joining cable news in a somber daylong vigil. A24
* SURVIVING CRASH: A nighttime emergency landing at sea makes survival "strictly a matter of luck," even in ideal circumstances, an aviation expert says. A26
* AN UNKNOWN PRINCESS: When the world's most eligible bachelor slipped a ring on her finger, Carolyn Bessette was "elevated to the rank of top Cinderella." A25
* LOCAL RESPONSE: Southern Californians reacted with shock and disbelief. A27