JFK Jr., wife feared dead

Aircraft also carrying her sister vanishes off Massachusetts coast

They were en route to wedding

Luggage from airplane found by sunbathers off Martha's Vineyard

July 18, 1999|By Todd Richissin and Tom Bowman | Todd Richissin and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GAY HEAD, Mass. -- Helicopters swirled above the westernmost coast of Martha's Vineyard yesterday as rescue boats bobbed below, looking for the plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr. and the relatives who apparently crashed into the ocean with him in the latest tragedy to befall the country's most charmed and cursed family.

Police closed miles of beach here, where earlier in the day several vacationers and investigators reported finding debris -- including three pieces of luggage belonging to the family, the nose wheel of a plane of the same design as Kennedy's single-engine, six-seat Piper Saratoga, and a prescription drug bottle bearing the name of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.

Kennedy, 38; his wife, Carolyn, 33; and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, 34, left Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., at 8: 38 p.m. Friday, bound for the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Kennedy was believed to be piloting the plane.

It was expected on Martha's Vineyard, an island off Cape Cod, about 10 p.m. The Kennedy family alerted authorities about 2: 15 a.m. that the plane was overdue.

Yesterday, people gathered on bluffs above the rocky beach where rescuers are focusing their search. Few of the onlookers had much hope for a miracle and instead prayed for the lost travelers and the family enduring yet more grief.

"If you lived through that day when President Kennedy was shot, it's really even more of a tragedy," said Louise Grant, 52, of Newton, Mass., who was vacationing. "It really sickens you."

President Clinton, who is spending the weekend at Camp David in Western Maryland, was told about the disappearance of the Kennedy plane by his chief of staff, John Podesta, about 7 a.m., press secretary Joe Lockhart said. The president called members of the family and was being kept informed about the search.

"All our prayers and thoughts are with the families of those on board," Clinton said in a statement.

Kennedy's only sibling, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, cut short a rafting trip in the West and headed to Hyannis Port yesterday.

The Coast Guard and the Air Force's Civil Air Patrol called off their search about 9 p.m. yesterday. The Air National Guard planned to work through the night, searching by air with an infrared device.

Late last night, the National Transportation Safety Board said it also will investigate the aircraft's disappearance.

Massachusetts State Police divers were on the scene but would not enter the water until more evidence existed on where the plane went down.

Michael O'Keefe, first assistant district attorney for the Cape and Islands District, said last night at a news conference in West Tisbury, Martha's Vineyard, that the debris included a plane seat and a black metal cover from a foot pedal, which are consistent with the type of plane Kennedy was flying, and the prescription bottle.

One piece of luggage, O'Keefe said, contained Lauren Bessette's name tag and business card.

Despite the mounting evidence, officials refused to say no hope remained.

"As of right now, it's still a search-and-rescue operation," state police Capt. Robert Bird said last night. "We're still hoping that this is a rescue mission."

He said police have kept the Kennedy family informed of developments. But he would not divulge what was said.

The evidence is being kept in police custody on the island, he said, and he pleaded with residents who may find other items to contact investigators.

At Gay Head, Duke County emergency workers set up a command station about 200 yards from a lighthouse that was blinking red and white.

About a half-mile away, Gordon Campbell, 34, was among those who found the luggage.

"It was kind of spooky because you knew who it belonged to," he said.

Campbell said he had flown his plane about 11 a.m. yesterday from Westchester, N.Y. He has made the flight many times, he said. And even during the day yesterday, a thick haze, like what Kennedy would have encountered, made it difficult to navigate.

"I would have never done it at night," he said. "If you get distracted, if you're working the radio or something, you can get in trouble."

Of the pieces of luggage, Campbell said, "They were perfectly intact, just soaking wet."

He described the luggage as a black garment bag, an aqua-green duffel bag and a small, black attache case.

The luggage was floating about 50 yards from shore when beach-goers noticed it, waded out and dragged it back to the beach, Campbell said.

Police said they received a call yesterday morning from a fisherman -- a vacationing Pittsburgh lawyer who was surf-casting Friday night -- who might have seen the plane going down.

"The plane was about two to three miles offshore and only 30 or 40 feet off the water, and then it just disappeared," said Officer Henry Meyer of the West Tisbury Police Department.

Though he refused to speculate, Meyer said the location of the debris was consistent with a missed approach to one of the airport's runways.

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