Coast Guard: Little chance anyone in Kennedy plane survived
Focus of search shifts from rescue to recovery
July 18, 1999
BOSTON (CNN) -- After a second day of fruitless searching for the missing plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. in the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, the Coast Guard has decided to shift its focus from rescue of possible survivors to recovery of wreckage.
At a press conference Sunday night, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee said that given the time that has elapsed since the plane disappeared from radar Friday night, search officials have concluded there is very little chance that Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn, or his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, survived the crash.
The Kennedy and Bessette families were notified of the Coast Guard's decision to shift the focus away from rescue.
"I have spent some very painful moments with the families tonight," said Larrabee.
On Monday, the Coast Guard plans to explore two sites that could be promising targets, based on preliminary data from a sonar-equipped research vessel, Larrabee said.
Earlier in the day, a U.S. Air Force plane detected a brief signal from what was thought to be an emergency beacon. But that lead didn't pan out upon further investigation, Larrabee said. He said a data marker dropped off by searchers may have been what was detected.
Kennedy's plane carried an emergency transmitting beacon that should have activated if the plane crashed, although the aircraft's manufacturer said the beacon might not work if submerged.
Larrabee said the plane was not equipped with a raft or life jackets. That, and the fact that the average survival time in the 68-degree waters off Martha's Vineyard is just 12 hours, contributed to the decision to shift away from the rescue effort.
While new debris, including a headrest and insulation from an airplane, were recovered Sunday, searchers found no signs of survivors.
Top officials from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on Cape Cod to begin a full-scale investigation into the crash. NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said the probe could take six to nine months.
"We are at the very beginning stages of what will be a painstakingly detailed investigation," he said.
After returning to the White House from a weekend at Camp David, President Bill Clinton offered the sympathies and prayers of the nation to the Kennedy and Bessette families.
"At this difficult moment, we hope the families of these three fine young people will feel the strength of God, the love of their friends and the prayers of their fellow citizens," Clinton said.
He also offered a tribute to the Kennedy family, faced with the latest in a string of tragedies.
"For more than 40 years now, the Kennedy family has inspired Americans to public service, strengthened our faith in the future and moved our nation forward," he said. "Through it all, they have suffered much and given more."
Clinton said John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife had "captured our imagination and won our affection."
Kennedy's Piper Saratoga II HP vanished Friday night about 9:40 p.m. EDT while on a flight from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, to Martha's Vineyard, a resort island off the Massachusetts mainland.
The NTSB's chief investigator, Robert Pearce, gave a timeline for the flight, pieced together by witness reports and tracking by radar of what investigators believe was Kennedy's craft.
Pearce said Kennedy took off at 8:38 p.m., turned to the northeast and climbed to 5,600 feet. The craft followed the coast of Connecticut until it reached Westerly, Rhode Island, at 9:26 p.m., where it turned and made a beeline over open water toward Martha's Vineyard.
Fourteen minutes later, Kennedy's plane was at 2,500 feet, about 17 miles west of the Martha's Vineyard airport and about 10 miles from the island's coast. Radar picked the plane up 29 seconds later at 1,800 feet, which was the last contact with the plane. Kennedy made no distress call.
Pearce said the 700-foot descent in 29 seconds was within the capabilities of the airplane. He said that because of the configuration of radar in the area, it would not be unusual for radar to lose the plane below 1,800 feet.
Hall urged the media and public not to speculate on possible causes of the apparent crash.
"The answer is simple -- at this point, we do not know. We will not know for some time. There is even a possibility we will never know," he said.
On Sunday, Larrabee said a headrest from an airplane was found. Another headrest had been recovered Saturday.
Also, Capt. Robert Bird of the Massachusetts State Police said that insulation, consistent with the type used to line the aircraft cabins, washed up near Philbin Beach on Martha's Vineyard.
On Saturday, other debris -- including Lauren Bessette's suitcase and a prescription pill bottle bearing Carolyn Kennedy's name -- was found in the same area.
All of the recovered debris was being taken for cataloging to a Coast Guard facility at Wood's Hole on Cape Cod and will eventually be taken to Otis Air National Guard Base, where a command post for the search effort was set up Sunday.
Larrabee said the unified command post would oversee both search and recovery efforts and include representatives from the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, Civil Air Patrol and NTSB.
John Kennedy Jr., 38, publisher of George magazine and son of the late president and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, bought the plane in April. He was a licensed pilot.
He and Carolyn Kennedy, 33, whom he married in 1996, were on their way to Hyannisport, Massachusetts, to attend a Kennedy family wedding. They were to drop off Lauren Bessette, 35, a New York investment banker, on Martha's Vineyard before continuing to Hyannisport.
On Sunday, search boats and planes criss-crossed a 550- square-mile area just southwest of Martha's Vineyard. All- terrain vehicles set out just after 5 a.m. to comb the beaches near Aquinnah for more signs of the wreckage.
A high-tech survey ship operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration probed the bottom of the ocean for manmade objects with sonar. NOAA Cmdr. Sam De Bow said a second NOAA survey ship, the Whiting, was on its way from Delaware Bay to assist in the search.
In addition, Larrabee said the USS Grasp, a Navy recovery ship, was being sent from its home port in Virginia to take part in the search.
Bird also told reporters that two state police search boats were being deployed to search Nomans Land Island, 3 1/2 miles off the southwest coast of Martha's Vineyard.
Bird said the island, now a National Wildlife Refuge, was once used as a military target. Any search of the island will be conducted only on its shores because of the threat of unexploded munitions, he said.
NTSB: JFK Jr.'s plane shows no in-flight break-up or fire
National Transportation Safety Board
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