Kennedy crash gets greater attention

A bereaved family notes the difference between a celebrity and a civilian

John F. Kennedy Jr.

July 20, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Jonathan Weisman | Tom Bowman and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On Memorial Day weekend last year, Bob Beach's rented Piper airplane, with three friends aboard, slammed into the churning Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco.

A Coast Guard helicopter searched a five-mile stretch around Half Moon Bay until early the next day, then abandoned the effort. When a fishing boat found an airplane seat that afternoon, the Coast Guard search began once more, ending two days later without finding a trace.

Beach's sister, Kathy Lanni, now watches with resignation as a major federal and state effort with helicopters, planes and ships -- as well as a personal boost from President Clinton -- enters its fourth day to find the pilot of another Piper, though this one was a 38-year-old American with a legendary name and not a 37-year-old delivery business owner who took college classes at night.

"The difference between a celebrity and a civilian," Lanni says with a grim laugh. "Of course it's unfair. But it's the way it is."

She recalls a comment she made to her mother over the weekend: "Can you believe what they're doing for him that they didn't do for Bob?"

White House aides and other officials insist that the government's efforts are not extraordinary. The Coast Guard conducted a four-day search off Provincetown, Mass., for a missing pilot last year, an aide said.

Lanni remembers being told by Coast Guard officials in California that the three-day search and rescue effort ended their responsibility. If the family wanted, they could pay for private divers to search for the victims and the four-seater plane.

"They don't look for wreckage when they feel it's beyond rescue," she said. "They're out of the picture."

But the Coast Guard is still off Martha's Vineyard, assisting in search and recovery efforts for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law.

Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee, commander of the Coast Guard's Boston district, told reporters Sunday that the effort to locate Kennedy and his party had switched from rescue to salvage, since no one could survive in the 68-degree water for more than 12 hours.

Yesterday afternoon, President Clinton called Larrabee -- for a second time -- and James M. Loy, commandant of the Coast Guard, to thank them for their work and to tell them to keep at it.

"I believe it's appropriate that this search continue," Clinton said later, during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Clinton, a friend of the Kennedy family, has taken an extraordinary interest in the search. The Federal Aviation Administration notified the White House of the plane's disappearance at 5: 30 a.m. Saturday.

White House chief of staff John Podesta quickly appointed one of his deputies, Maria Echaveste, and an assistant to the president, Thurgood Marshall Jr., to coordinate the White House response with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Defense Department.

At midnight Saturday, unable to sleep, Clinton called Larrabee to get an appraisal.

Cmdr. Michael Lapinski, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, called the search-and-rescue effort "typical" and said that while his service's role continues with the recovery operation, it's "to a very much more drawn-back extent."

Asked why the Coast Guard is continuing to aid in the effort off Martha's Vineyard but did not do so in Half Moon Bay, Lapinski referred to the 50,000 assistance calls the Coast Guard responds to each year. "With the sheer number of cases, there's bound to be cases at one end of the spectrum and others at the other end. I know it sounds cold if you're at the other end."

Lapinski acknowledged that the Kennedy name attached to the crash has caused "great interest" in the nation. Has it caused great interest in the Coast Guard? "I'm not one of the ones making these decisions," he said.

A White House aide, asked about the truncated search off Half Moon Bay, said the two crashes are not comparable. The Coast Guard follows timetables on survivability rates at specific locations, he said. And the frigid, shark-infested waters and swift currents off Northern California are more dangerous than the North Atlantic, where the waters are slightly warmer and rocky outcroppings could harbor a survivor.

But the rescue efforts off Martha's Vineyard not only continued but expanded after it became clear that no one could survive.

Before the Coast Guard called off rescue efforts Sunday night, it was assisted in its search during the day by a NOAA research vessel, the Rude, with sophisticated underwater radar.

During the weekend, an Air National Guard HC-130 was diverted from its mission to Cape Canaveral to assist in today's planned space shuttle launch, said Air Force officials. The plane served as an airborne command and control center for the four helicopters and the 15 Civil Air Patrol planes that were scouring the coastline and waters.

Yesterday, the Rude was joined by another NOAA research ship, the Whiting, that was being diverted from Delaware Bay, and the USS Grasp, a Navy salvage vessel from Little Creek, Va. The Navy ship and the Rude took part in the recovery of TWA Flight 800, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island three years ago.

Navy and NOAA spokesmen could not immediately recall any previous effort where they sent ships to aid in the search and recovery of a small private plane. A spokesman for NOAA referred a reporter to the White House for further comment.

If the search for Kennedy's plane continues through the day today, White House aides conceded that it would be extraordinary by federal standards.

Lanni insists that neither she nor her mother is angered by the differences she sees in the government's efforts in the two crashes.

"It's the celebrity situation," Lanni said evenly. "It's holding the public's attention. Even I'm scanning the TV set."

Pub Date: 7/20/99

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