A Desperate Search at Sea

There were, at first, the usual false reports. Debris spotted off Long Island. The ping of what seemed to be an airplane's beacon from deep under the waves off Montauk. Both were dismissed--wrong place, wrong kind. But shortly after noon, on a Saturday when the blazing sun made the Atlantic off Martha's Vineyard sparkle like diamonds on velvet, the sea carried toward Philbin Beach the first confirmation of a tragedy that the world, waiting and praying, hoped against hope would be averted. Bobbing in the surf was a black overnight bag with a business card in a clear pocket: "Lauren G. Bessette. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Vice President." Damon Seligson, visiting the Vineyard from Boston, waded in and pulled it from the water. "I just had an awful feeling in my stomach," he said. He called the police. When they arrived, their three-wheel buggy already held a square aqua duffel bag and what looked like a plane wheel, both pulled from the waters nearby. Soon, searchers recovered an airplane seat, landing gear and a black cosmetics bag containing a prescription bottle for "Carolyn Kennedy."

From Arlington National Cemetery, where ashen visitors laid a bouquet of flowers at President Kennedy's grave and a scribbled note that said "Praying for John Jr.," to Camp David, where President Clinton spoke by phone with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Sen. Ted Kennedy, the news hit with the shattering force of history. John F. Kennedy Jr., piloting his six-seat Piper Saratoga II HP from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard, had been lost at sea. With him were his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren, whom the couple was dropping off on the Vineyard before continuing on to the Kennedy family compound--a puddle-jump away in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod--for the wedding of Kennedy's cousin Rory.

The last contact with what personnel at Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Mass., believe was Kennedy's plane came at 9:39 Friday night. Radar spotted it about 10 miles offshore and 19 miles from the Vineyard airport, apparently preparing for its landing approach. Aviation experts tracked the plane from 5,500 feet, to 2,500, to 2,200--and in the next 12-second radar sweep, to 1,300 feet, a rapid descent that could only be called a dive. Kennedy's plane never made contact with the Vineyard airport control tower.

When he did not arrive as scheduled at 10 p.m., the phone lines began buzzing from Cape Cod to Washington. At 2:15 a.m., family friend Carol Ratowell called the Coast Guard operations center in Woods Hole, officials there told NEWSWEEK. Within minutes, the call was relayed to the First Coast Guard District Command in Boston, and from there to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA quickly checked to see if the Piper had diverted to any other airfield. When that search came up empty, by about 3 in the morning, the FAA alerted both the Coast Guard and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia that Kennedy's plane might be down somewhere between New Jersey and the Vineyard. Coast Guard cutters were dispatched to check out the mysterious beacon off Montauk on Long Island. They spent the next three hours investigating what turned out to be a false alarm. At 7 a.m., after a frantic hour and a half spent determining the status of the search and teleconferencing with Pentagon officials, White House chief of staff John Podesta called President Clinton at Camp David. A plane carrying JFK Jr. was missing, Podesta said. "Let's make sure we're doing everything we can to find them," said Clinton, asking to be briefed regularly on the search.

Between 7:30 and 7:55 Saturday morning, a C-130, 15 Civil Air Patrol planes, two Coast Guard helicopters, an Air National Guard chopper and a UH-25 Falcon took to the skies. A virtual armada--Coast Guard cutters, utility boats, patrol boats and search-and-rescue ships--combed an area 190 nautical miles long by 20 miles wide between Long Island and Cape Cod. By noon, the Air Force had turned to the intelligence community, asking the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which reports to the director of Central Intelligence, to pull the CIA into the search. Intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK that three advanced KH-11 photographic satellites in a standard polar orbit were in position to pass over the entire search area at different times. "It's not a common occurrence" to use intelligence satellites for search-and-rescue missions involving civilians, said Jeff Richelson, an intelligence expert. All told, they would search 6,031 square miles of sea and coastline in less than a day, the Boston Coast Guard headquarters told NEWSWEEK.

By 1 p.m., the search had narrowed to a 20-by-20-mile area about 17 miles off the Vineyard. In an incongruous juxtaposition, the yachts circling the island in the Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta were racing through the same area, their sails billowed by the breezes that were now carrying "debris" toward Philbin Beach. The first signs that Kennedy's plane was lost came as boats picked up carpeting and a headrest, and the aqua duffel bag, which reportedly belonged to Kennedy, all less than 200 yards off the beach--and within sight of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's Vineyard home. By nightfall, the Navy had been asked to provide a ship able to raise a plane from the sea floor.

Hindsight finds myriad "if onlys" that could have averted the tragedy. Kennedy had pulled into the Essex County airport in Fairfield, N.J., in a white convertible at about 8 p.m., said pilot Kyle Bailey, 25, who was planning to fly to the Vineyard too. Carolyn arrived about 15 minutes later. The couple chatted while Kennedy, limping and using a crutch because he had broken his ankle paragliding during the Memorial Day weekend, put the red and white Piper that he had bought (used) in April through its preflight check. The plane typically carries no flotation devices; an emergency locating transmitter (ELT), which deploys on impact, is standard. "But we don't believe the ELT would transmit if it was submerged in water," said Chuck Suma of New Piper Aircraft Inc. Haze that night limited visibility to about four miles, said Bailey, who scrubbed his flight to the Vineyard that night. "It just seemed too hazy to go over the open water," said Bailey.

It was 12 minutes past sunset when the Piper began rolling down runway 22. Rising over a golf course, it immediately banked right as it eased into a northeast trajectory. Kennedy had received his pilot's license in April 1998 (he had waited to start flying lessons until his worried mother died), and lately had flown almost every weekend. By morning, when it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong, Rory Kennedy's wedding to Mark Bailey was postponed indefinitely. The guests dispersed. As priests said a mass for the missing, about 50 family members gathered on Ethel Kennedy's porch to pray. And the Kennedy compound, which once embodied the promises of Camelot, again plunged into grief.