Kennedy Crash Presumed Fatal as Search Shifts


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.

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.

Hall traveled to Cape Cod from Long Island, where earlier Sunday he met with relatives of crash victims of TWA Flight 800, which plunged into the Atlantic three years ago Saturday, killing all 230 aboard. Technology perfected during the TWA crash is being used in the search off Martha's Vineyard, and the same ship equipped with side-scanning sonar that located the jumbo jet's mangled fuselage is searching for Kennedy's plane.

Meanwhile, a Main Street newsstand in Hyannis offered grim testimony to the events of the weekend. Fourteen newspapers, all in a row, carried front-page pictures of Kennedy and his glamorous wife.

At the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis, where Kennedy's grandmother, the late Rose Kennedy, worshiped daily when she was in residence, prayers were offered for Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law and their families.

At the Kennedy compound, the billowing white tents set up for Rory Kennedy's wedding reception were used instead for a private Mass. Three priests attended, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), in Bermuda shorts and a navy blue shirt, served communion wine from a silver chalice. His wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, stood beside him as the senator and de facto clan patriarch led the family in prayers.

About 50 close friends and family members remained at the compound, among them Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and his wife, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. Max and Douglas Kennedy were seen trading hugs with their mother, Ethel. Douglas Kennedy also shared an embrace with his sister Rory and her fiance, Mark Bailey, whose wedding was postponed as the family awaited word on the fate of the small plane.

Describing the situation as surreal, one person who was invited to the wedding, noted: "This is a family that has enormous faith--it's not a cultural thing or a political thing, today in politics you wear your religion on your sleeve--but this is a family that held close to their religion when it was a tremendous disadvantage. It's very real in their lives and provides some sense of comfort, some way to help sustain them through times like this."

As the tense wait stretched out, Dr. Kiki Kennedy, who is married to Ted Kennedy Jr., went jogging. U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s aunt, stopped off at the nearby West Beach Club, wearing a bathing suit and beach hat.

In the early afternoon Sunday, some family members piled into Ted Kennedy's beloved wooden sloop, the Maya, and went for a sail.

Off Martha's Vineyard, boats, the C-130 and helicopters continued to patrol waters extending 20 miles off Gay Head, while other crews used thick-tired all-terrain vehicles to patrol nine miles of beaches looking for more debris washed ashore by strong tides and currents.

The day before, the official crews and civilian beach goers found a prescription bottle of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's, a black suitcase belonging to her sister and a few small pieces of the plane--including part of a wheel housing and a seat back--on the rocky sands of Philbin Beach in the town of Aquinnah.

Elsewhere on the island, summer events continued as planned, from the annual "monster shark" fishing contest to a roadside arts and crafts fair and moped rides along the island's picture-postcard inlets harboring sailboats and yachts.

Here, however, beach access roads again were closed off by authorities, as were parking lots above the bluffs and tangled brush leading to the ocean near Gay Head lighthouse. The search teams didn't prevent some residents from simply walking from their homes to the beaches.

Angie Waldron, the treasurer for Aquinnah, usually would have been watching $15 weekend parking fees pour in at the dirt lot up the hill. Instead, she was walking her two dogs along the beach and looking carefully in the sand and water.

"I always pick up stuff," she said. "Fossils, whatever I find. But there was nothing unusual today."

Every few minutes, an ATV passed slowly by, driven by a local sheriff's deputy, volunteer or a member of the Wampanoag tribe, which won federal recognition in 1987. The tribe, which owns and guards the scenic-but-fragile Gay Head cliffs, once clashed over beach access issues with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who owned one of the largest estates in the area.

But those old tensions were forgotten in these moments, said Waldron, who is married to a tribe member. "What else would we do but be as helpful as possible?" she asked. "Responsible, reasonable people would have to be out here."


Lieberman reported from Martha's Vineyard and Mehren from Cape Cod. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow on Martha's Vineyard, John J. Goldman in New York and Betsy Sharkey in Los Angeles.

Updates, additional photos and video related to the search for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane are available on The Times' Web site:

More on the Crash

* TRIBECA OUTPOURING--Flowers pile up at the couple's home as New Yorkers pay their respects.A14

* TV DRAMA--Coverage of the hunt for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was heavy on hyperbole.F1

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.
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