Kennedy found

burial at sea

Family members on Navy ship as bodies brought up

3 still strapped in seats

Large portions of plane wreckage also are lifted

July 22, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. -- Five days after the plane he was piloting crashed into the waters near the summer home he loved, the body of John F. Kennedy Jr. was raised from the ocean floor yesterday as his relatives looked sadly on.

This morning, Kennedy is expected to be buried at sea from the deck of the USS Briscoe, a Navy destroyer, in a Roman Catholic service.

As the search ended yesterday, Kennedy's body and those of his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, were lifted onto the USS Grasp, a Navy salvage vessel, authorities said.

Searchers also recovered an 8- to 10-foot section of the plane's fuselage, providing hope that investigators might be able to determine why the plane went down late Friday as it approached Martha's Vineyard.

"I know there are many people, including my family, who consider this a national tragedy," said Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "We all must remember, though, this is an intense personal tragedy for the families. Our hearts go out to them."

A private Mass for Kennedy and his wife will be offered in New York tomorrow, while the Bessettes are planning a service for Lauren in Greenwich, Conn., on Saturday night.

The New York Times reported that Carolyn Bessette and Lauren Bessette would also be buried at sea.

Hall said the "attention of the nation" should now be "in the contemplation of the three young lives lost in this tragedy" and, because of that, the NTSB would not be releasing any more information about the crash until after the memorial services.

His agency will take six to nine months to issue a report on the probable cause of the accident.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, John Jr.'s uncle, was aboard the Grasp off Martha's Vineyard when the bodies were pulled from the water. Also on aboard were his cousins, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island and Ted Kennedy Jr.

"They made a request to come out prior to the time the victims were removed," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee, who added, "I think today we were able bring closure to two families, and I think that's important."

The bodies were raised to the surface, placed on a Coast Guard cutter and carried to Woods Hole, where the Massachusetts state medical examiner was to perform autopsies and return the remains to the families.

They bodies "were brought up in a way that I think respected the situation we were in, and I don't think I need to go into more of that," Larrabee said.

Using sonar from the ship Rude, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration located the fuselage about 11: 40 p.m. Tuesday in 116 feet of water, about 7 1/2 miles southwest of Martha's Vineyard, Larrabee said.

Two divers found the bodies about 10: 30 a.m. yesterday.

Officials said Kennedy's body was still in the fuselage of the six-seat plane, but it was unclear where his wife and sister-in-law's bodies were found.

Larrabee said the fuselage had to be raised to recover one of the bodies. All three were still strapped into their seats, he said.

Divers encountered twisted metal, stray wiring and other debris from the plane, he said, but the bulk of the fuselage had been raised to the USS Grasp.

"The major piece was intact, obviously very damaged," he said. "There are pieces of the wings that have not been recovered."

Kennedy took off from a Fairfield, N.J., airport at 8: 38 p.m. Friday. He intended to drop off Lauren Bessette at the home on Martha's Vineyard that he and his sister, Caroline, inherited from their mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Then he planned to continue to Hyannis Port with his wife for the wedding of his cousin, Rory, the youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

But for unknown reasons, Kennedy was within a couple of minutes of Martha's Vineyard Airport when he turned away from the island and began a rapid descent.

Using radar from several points along his route, authorities determined that his single-engine Saratoga II HP might have been plummeting more than 5,000 feet per minute when it slammed into the water. A normal descent is about 500 feet per minute.

Aviation experts say Kennedy most likely became disoriented because he could not locate a horizon or lights on Martha's Vineyard. The skies were ink black Friday night, with almost no moon, and a heavy haze made visibility tough even for experienced pilots.

Kennedy had been flying for less than a year; he was not certified to fly using only his instruments.

"That they recovered what they did in such a short amount of time is remarkable," said retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Linnon, who oversaw the recovery of debris from TWA Flight 800.

The loss of John, the most celebrated Kennedy of his generation, follows a half-century of tragedies for the nation's best known political family.

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