Searchers seem to be near wreckage of Kennedy plane

FAA comes under fire for handling of call from Vineyard airport

July 21, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. -- Authorities searching for the downed plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. appeared to be closing in on its wreckage yesterday, and officials said new data culled from radars show he plummeted more than 5,000 feet per minute before crashing into the Atlantic.

While searchers continued their job, the Federal Aviation Administration found itself on the defensive, acknowledging it was notified about the missing plane about 30 minutes after it crashed about 9: 40 p.m. Friday. It did not launch a search.

But most attention yesterday was focused on the Atlantic. Using radar data from several sites in the Northeast, searchers have identified a more precise area where they believe the plane splashed into the water carrying Kennedy, 38; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33; and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34. All are presumed dead.

Divers took to that area at sunrise yesterday, exploring the murky waters about seven miles southwest of Martha's Vineyard. They were led to the site by the radar data combined with sonar from ships that showed an object "consistent with the wreckage" on the floor of the Atlantic, about 115 feet below the surface, according to Cmdr. Sam DeBow of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The images, created by ships that use sonar to sketch the ocean bottom, showed jagged edges that indicate man-made objects, rather than the roundish objects nature tends to create, DeBow said.

Divers found no wreckage but were able to search only a small part of the area because visibility was less than eight feet, the water temperature was only 52 degrees Fahrenheit and undercurrents were strong, he said. Sonar ships were to continue to work through the night, and additional divers would be sent into the water if it was deemed safe.

The Coast Guard chose to use scuba divers limited to 15 minutes in the water -- rather than deep-sea divers, who could have stayed in the water longer -- because the sonar images were promising and it was quicker to get the scuba divers in the water, said Capt. Bert Marsh, a Navy diving and salvage officer.

`Get in quickly'

"The image was strong enough and verified by more than one ship, so we wanted to get in quickly," Marsh said.

Authorities identified an area about 100 square yards as the plane's "theoretical splashdown point." It was calculated using data collected from at least three separate radars.

Five areas where sonar indicated substantial wreckage could be located were eliminated, authorities said, but they have identified additional sites. As night fell yesterday, searchers had about 15 sites to examine, but they were focusing most of their efforts on two areas near the splash zone.

"We have a couple of targets we believe to be of high enough interest that we're continuing to examine them as we speak," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee.

Kennedy was flying his Piper Saratoga II HP on Friday night from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard, where he intended to drop off his sister-in-law before continuing to Hyannis Port with his wife.

They were to attend the wedding of Kennedy's cousin Rory, the youngest daughter of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Authorities have been cautious not to offer theories on why the plane crashed, but aviation experts have said Kennedy might have become disoriented because an exceptionally dark and hazy night would have made it difficult to see the coastline and lights of Martha's Vineyard.

Kennedy was not licensed to fly using only navigational equipment.

Fast descent

Robert Pearce, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said he has obtained additional radar data that show Kennedy's plane plummeting at an even greater speed than previously thought.

"We believe it may have been greater than 5,000 feet per minute," he said. A normal descent is about 500 feet per minute, and aviation experts have said any drop faster than 1,000 feet per minute would cause the plane to shatter on impact.

Pearce would not speculate on the likely condition of the plane, but, he said, "I'm sure you can draw a conclusion based on the debris we're bringing in, which are fragmented."

He said boaters and others on the shore of Martha's Vineyard recovered additional debris yesterday, and the Associated Press reported that documents identifying Kennedy's aircraft washed up on the beach near the house that Kennedy once shared with his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

An overhead lighting panel measuring about 3 square feet was recovered along with another headrest and additional pieces of molding from the interior of the plane, Pearce said.

No metal from the plane has been recovered, he said.

Using radar data from the town of Falmouth and Nantucket Island as well as from the Navy, Pearce said, authorities were able to trace Kennedy's plane to an earlier point in its flight than they were previously.

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