Kennedy believed to be dead

Search for JFK Jr., wife, sister-in-law becomes 'recovery'

Divers to be used today

Pieces of insulation from plane cabin wash on shore

July 19, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. -- After more than two agonizing days of dwindling hope, officials scouring the coast of Martha's Vineyard said last night what they had been unwilling to say before: John F. Kennedy Jr. is presumed dead.

The news, though anticipated in the face of mounting evidence, seemed abrupt, a jarring announcement that was hardly cushioned by a series of discouraging reports since the plane of the slain president's son was reported missing early Saturday.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee said he broke the news to the Kennedys last evening. "It was a difficult phone call for me and I'm sure it was much more difficult for them. They have all been very gracious and very appreciative over the last two days. They thanked me and thanked all of the people who were involved. It was just a very difficult phone call."

Lost with Kennedy, 38, was his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34. The three left New Jersey on Friday night, in a plane piloted by Kennedy, to attend a family wedding in Hyannis Port.

Yesterday, more debris -- almost certainly from Kennedy's plane -- washed onto the rocky shore of Martha's Vineyard, and as skies darkened for a second night since his disappearance, so did hopes of finding him or the family members traveling with him alive.

Until nightfall, the Coast Guard and other agencies looking for Kennedy, his wife and her sister insisted the downing of their single-engine plane was being treated as a search and rescue mission.

Last night, Larrabee said for the first time that the operation no longer had rescue as its goal. Now it was described as "search and recovery."

That was not unexpected. All day, in the same hushed asides being used by vacationers and residents across the island, top officials involved in the search grudgingly and sadly conceded that the search was unlikely to find survivors.

Larrabee discounted reports that a signal, perhaps from a downed plane, had been picked up off the coast. He said it was a false alarm that could have come from a data marker dropped by the Coast Guard.

A sonar-equipped ship was sent to the spot off Martha's Vineyard where debris from the plane had been found. Officials said divers would begin searching today possible targets in water 60 to 80 feet deep.

More than 300 people, including members of the Coast Guard, Air Force and National Guard, concentrated on a 600-square-mile area off Gay Head, on the southwestern edge of Martha's Vineyard, using ships, helicopters, planes and all-terrain vehicles.

'Like a prince'

Bustling with vacationers this time of year, Martha's Vineyard was smothered yesterday in a pall as the island saw more evidence that the country had lost more members of the family that most closely resembles American royalty.

"It's like when the Brits lost Princess Di," said Mary Raden, 70, of Bloomfield, Mich., who is vacationing on the island with a tour group. "John Kennedy was like a prince. All of us were horrified when we found out. We're on vacation, and we wanted to get away from what's going on in the world, but this is something you don't get away from."

Insulation from the cabin of a plane washed ashore over a mile-long stretch of beach yesterday, said Capt. Robert Bird of the Massachusetts State Police. He said it matched insulation used in a Piper Saratoga II HP, the type of plane Kennedy was flying Friday.

He and his wife had planned to drop off Lauren Bessette on Martha's Vineyard and continue to Hyannis Port to celebrate with Rory Kennedy, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's daughter, who was to be wed Saturday.

Instead, the Kennedys were holding a vigil in Hyannis Port, the wedding postponed.

Debris found

The fiberglass material washed up in inch-long chunks and foot-long strands, according to Bird. It was being cataloged with additional debris recovered yesterday, he said, and was being held in a hangar at Otis Air Force Base by the NTSB, which took control of the investigation yesterday.

"I would characterize it as a significant amount of debris," Bird said. It was found on Philbin's Beach, a rocky strand on the westernmost edge of Martha's Vineyard, less than a mile from the home Kennedy inherited from his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

On Saturday, wreckage, luggage belonging to Lauren Bessette and a prescription bottle of medicine belonging to Bessette Kennedy washed ashore with a plane's wheel in the same area.

Yesterday, Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, flew to Cape Cod to set up a command post at Otis Air Force Base. It will coordinate the work of the Coast Guard, Navy, NTSB, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Massachusetts State Police and other state agencies.

Hall said that the crash investigation could take six to nine months.

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