On Cape, they wait and pray

As tragedy unfolds, crowds stand vigil near Kennedy home

John F. Kennedy Jr.

July 19, 1999|By Neal Thompson, | Neal Thompson,,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HYANNIS PORT, Mass. -- At St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, where for 75 years the Kennedy family has worshiped, wed and mourned, the Rev. Edward Byington asked midway through yesterday's morning Mass: "Why are there calamities in life?"

Even for the faithful, it is the most unfathomable of questions. When Byington's somber congregation of residents and tourists bowed their heads in silent prayer, some said they asked for a miracle. Some said they prayed for strength.

So began another hot day on Cape Cod of waiting to learn the fate of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. The headline on the hometown paper, the Cape Cod Times, summed up the affection for the young man America had watched grow up: "Searching for a Fallen Son."

Visitors have flocked to this seaside village, seeking some connection to the Kennedys, some closeness to their homes and their history. But the vestiges of the previous day's optimism -- hopes of a heroic rescue, of survival against the odds -- had faded, as people seemed to realize there may be no miracle.

"We came to pay our respects," said Benjamin Cuevos of Waterbury, Conn., who was visiting the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum with his wife, Marilyn. "I would have liked to have met him."

The Kennedy family remained inside the trio of waterfront houses known as the Kennedy compound. Behind the stone walls, white picket fences and blue hydrangeas, the family celebrated an outdoor Mass.

An occasional family member was seen walking on the beach. In the afternoon, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, went boating with other family members. Mary Medeiros, a family baby-sitter, said there were a lot of tears inside the compound.

Hordes of news crews were staked out behind police barricades, but the family issued no statements.

Kennedy's sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, awaited word at her family's summer home in Southampton, Long Island. Caroline, 41, was on a rafting trip out West when her brother's plane disappeared off Martha's Vineyard. She didn't hear the news until so much time had passed as to leave only the slimmest hope for his survival. Townsend returns home

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s cousin, returned to her Ruxton home yesterday from Hyannis Port. She had been there with her husband, David Townsend, and youngest daughter, Kerry, for her sister's wedding.

"She's trying to focus on spending time with her family," said Alan H. Fleischmann, her chief of staff.

The neighborhood surrounding the Kennedy homes in Hyannis Port was overrun by hundreds of reporters from across the United States and beyond. They sought shade beneath pine trees and umbrellas. They mingled with neighbors, borrowed their telephones. They bought 25-cent lemonades and iced teas from 13-year-old Sarah Edwards and her two friends. And they left behind their discarded coffee cups, newspapers, pens and water bottles.

An enormous white tent that had been erected for the wedding of Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, still stood in the hot sun yesterday. John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife were on their way to the wedding, scheduled for Saturday night, when their plane disappeared. The 275 guests were notified early Saturday that the wedding was postponed.

People kept vigil all over the Cape. "TVs were on in every restaurant," said Nancy Pichard. "The bartenders were watching TV. It was just different. You felt like you lost a family member."

At nearby John F. Kennedy Memorial Park yesterday, typical summer crowds barbecued chicken and burgers, thumped a volleyball back and forth and waded into the shallow waters of Lewis Bay. But at the bronze relief portrait of President John F. Kennedy, bouquets of flowers -- sunflowers, roses, daisies -- had been left, along with a note scribbled onto the torn-out page of an address book: "Dear John, Carolyn and Lauren. Our prayers are with you. Debbie, Marc and Rich."

Other words and prayers for the Kennedys were written into the guest book at the Kennedy museum on Main Street, which extended its hours and waived admission fees.

Guests from as far away as Ireland, China and Australia scribbled their names and condolences in the white-and-green book: "We are saddened at this latest tragedy." "A very sad day." "May they be found." "God bless both families." The Infrancos of Long Island wrote, "May the good Lord be with you and those you love on this sad day."

People mingled among the many early-1960s photographs of John F. Kennedy, Jackie and their children. They stood close and squinted at pictures of the boy known then as John-John. There he was, atop a pony; running barefoot on a pier; posing in a sailor's outfit and red sneakers; frolicking with puppies on a lawn chair; playing on a sailboat named "Double Trouble."

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