Search for Kennedy plane continues
Searchers still hope to find survivors
July 18, 1999
BOSTON (CNN) -- Searchers are combing beaches, and the waters off the Massachusetts coast Sunday, searching for clues in the disappearance of a plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., which vanished from radar on Friday.
A Coast Guard Lear jet, called a Falcon, was to locate a marker buoy in the choppy waters, and resume the air search for debris and survivors. Boats stood ready to rejoin the massive search, which was scaled back overnight. Searchers insist there is still hope that survivors can be found.
Kennedy, 38, his wife, Carolyn, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 35, were aboard the Piper Saratoga II that failed to arrive Friday night in Martha's Vineyard, en route from New Jersey to Hyannisport, Massachusetts, where the Kennedys were to attend a family wedding.
On Saturday afternoon, debris was found in the waters off Philbin Beach, near the community of Aquinnah. Among the items found were a suitcase with a tag containing Bessette's business card; a prescription drug bottle with Carolyn Kennedy's name on it; and parts of a seat, landing gear and a foot pedal consistent with Kennedy's plane.
Through the night, the Coast Guard kept its sea search going, though it was scaled back. Early Sunday, an 87-foot Hammerhead with a crew of 10; the 110-foot Point Wells with a crew of 17; and a third cutter, the 110-foot Sanibel with its 17-member crew were searching for the missing plane. At 10 a.m. ET, the 225-foot Willow, with a crew of more than 25, was to join the search.
A National Transportation Safety Board team was dispatched to investigate.
Haze hampered air effort
On Saturday, the Coast Guard called off an air search at 11:25 p.m. after haze made it difficult to see the water from a height of just 300 feet, according to Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Fischetti, of the U.S. Coast Guard.
That includes the helicopters carrying the forward-looking infrared device intended to spot articles in the water at different temperatures.
"We were out on night-vision goggles and using forward-looking infrared to help our search," said Maj. Graham Buschor, of the 106th Rescue Wing, of New York National Guard, in West Hampton, New York.
"Unfortunately, when the moon went down, we had low visibility and had to terminate the search early. We were down at 300 feet, and it became tough to see the water at that point."
During his search, he saw no debris or survivors, he said.
The Coast Guard vessels that continue to search will be joined by an Air Force C-130 and two HH-60 helicopters, he said. The helicopters carry a crew of six: two pilots, a crew chief, and pararescue swimmers, Fischetti said. All-terrain vehicles were to comb the beaches.
The C-130 is used to refuel the helicopters in flight, allowing them to stay aloft six to eight hours.
By late morning, the four Coast Guard cutters are expected to be joined by four or five smaller vessels, according to Lt. Paul King of the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston.
Two of the cutters on Saturday night replaced the five small vessels whose crews had spent most of Saturday searching for survivors and debris off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.
On Sunday, the ships will be sailing in search patterns, similar to mowing a lawn, to ensure that all areas of the ocean are covered, according to Lt. King.
"Obviously, the larger cutters are restricted in their abilities to go into shallower waters; the smaller vessels will take up the slack there," King said.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Richard Defrancesco told CNN that a fuel slick was found about 20 miles to the west of Martha's Vineyard. However, he said it was not clear whether the slick was caused by aviation fuel or came from a passing ship. No debris field was seen, he said.
A Massachusetts State Police dive team was brought into the area to aid in the search. A vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, equipped with sonar for underwater searches, joined the effort Saturday evening, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee.
The same NOAA ship was used to investigate the TWA 800 disaster three years ago.
"We are still in the search and rescue phase," Larrabee said. "We're not ready to give up on this yet."
Larrabee said Coast Guard officials had been in close contact with the family of Kennedy, founder of George magazine and the son of the assassinated president and the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
He and his wife were traveling to Hyannisport to attend the wedding Saturday of his cousin, Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The wedding was canceled, and a somber mood descended on the Hyannisport compound, where many family members gathered to wait for news.
"This is a real tragedy," family friend Rowland Evans told CNN. "The Kennedys have a habit of gathering around in an extraordinary way in a situation like this."
In front of the Kennedys' apartment building in the Tribeca section of New York City, people stopped by Saturday to leave flowers. Yellow ribbons were put up around Martha's Vineyard.
People also held vigils at the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, where Kennedy's parents are both buried, and at the School Book Depository in Dallas, where his father President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Parishioners at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the Bessette sisters grew up and attended a church-run high school, lit candles for them and Kennedy at Saturday evening Mass.
The search for Kennedy's plane, which took off from the Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, just after 8:30 p.m. EDT Friday, included units from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Civil Air Patrol.
Kyle Bailey, who owns a plane and flies out of the same New Jersey airport, said he saw Kennedy going through a preflight check. Bailey scrapped his own plans to fly to Martha's Vineyard because of hazy conditions.
"I stopped by to check my plane and I saw (Kennedy) and his wife entering the plane," Bailey said. "Visibility was real poor -- I'd say 3 to 4 miles -- and especially flying over water at that time of night in that plane in the haze and low visibility, I'd say could be a problem."
However, Larrabee said there are "no indications of problems with weather or equipment." Weather conditions along what would have been the plane's flight path were quiet overnight, with light clouds, light wind and some haze.
Kennedy, who earned his pilot's license last year, had not filed a flight plan, but aviation regulations did not require him to file one.
The plane was last tracked on radar about 17 miles southwest of Martha's Vineyard. Larrabee said the plane made no known radio contact with air traffic controllers during the flight.
At about 2:15 a.m. Saturday, family members, concerned that Kennedy had never arrived, contacted the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA launched an investigation to see whether the plane might have landed at another location. After it had been determined that it had not, a search began at about 7:30 a.m., Larrabee said.
The original search area extended along the entire flight route from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard, but it was narrowed to the area immediately off the coast after debris began to turn up, he said.
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Dennis Hall said the search focused on an area 5 to 10 miles off Aquinnah, formerly Gay Head, on the western tip of Martha's Vineyard.
Ironically, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis owned a estate in the Aquinnah area that she left to her son and his sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, when she died in 1994.
Schlossberg is not at the family compound. She was on trip in the West when she learned of her brother's disappearance and is believed to be en route to Massachusetts.
The man who found Lauren Bessette's suitcase on Philbin Beach, Damon Selicson, told CNN Boston affiliate WBZ that the case contained a hair dryer and other personal items, as well as a business card with her name on it.
"I dragged (the suitcase) out of the water," he said. "Everyone was very, very upset. We pulled it up, we put it where we were sitting and we called the police."
Another witness, Gordon Campbell, said he saw police take away three pieces of luggage -- an aqua-green duffel bag, an attache case and a small black bag, all of which appeared to be intact.
Campbell, a pilot, also reported seeing what looked like the wheel of an airplane.
Margaret Napolitan, director of air safety for the plane's manufacturer, New Piper Aircraft Inc., of Vero Beach, Florida, confirmed that the plane was equipped with an emergency beacon that should have gone off at impact. However, she said the signal would likely not have been detectable if the device sank in the ocean.
Chuck Suma, president of New Piper, said Kennedy had trained on a similar, though slightly smaller and less powerful, aircraft. He had also taken a tour of the Piper factory during his training, Suma said.
Kennedy bought the used Piper Saratoga in April, Suma said. The plane, which sells for $325,000 to $350,000 new, was manufactured in June 1995. More than 7,500 of the planes are in service worldwide, he said.
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy a former publicist for fashion designer Calvin Klein, married John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996 at a ceremony on Georgia's secluded Cumberland Island.
The younger Kennedy has eschewed the family tradition of politics, launching George in 1995 after a brief legal career that included a stint as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
Lauren Bessette is an investment banker for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York.
The string of tragedies that have befallen the Kennedy family include several air disasters. John F. Kennedy's brother, Joe, was shot down in a plane during World War II, and another sister, Kathleen, died in a crash a few years later. Sen. Edward Kennedy, the brother of the slain president, was seriously injured in a crash in 1964.
NTSB: JFK Jr.'s plane shows no in-flight break-up or fire
The New Piper Aircraft, Inc. "Saratoga II TC"
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