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Divers search two sites in Kennedy crash

boats and divers
Divers prepare to search the waters for wreckage from John F. Kennedy Jr.'s small plane

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The ship Rude, equipped with a special sonar, searches off the Massachusetts coast for John Kennedy Jr.'s lost plane


Bessette family makes statement

July 19, 1999
Web posted at: 5:09 p.m. EDT (2109 GMT)

In this story:

Several search ships

Beacon signal no lead after all

Sudden plunge

Families mourn privately

Clinton expresses nation's grief


MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Divers arrived at underwater search sites Monday afternoon in the hunt for wreckage of the plane that was carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister. All three are presumed dead.

The Kennedy relatives maintained their silence today, but the parents of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister Lauren said they were trying to come to grips with the deaths. "Each of these three young people ... was the embodiment of love, accomplishment and passion for life," said the Bessette statement, read by family friend Grant Stinchfield in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Members of the Massachusetts State Police dive team first gathered at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod for a briefing by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The divers -- two groups of five divers each -- were dispatched on boats from a Coast Guard station on Martha's Vineyard. Each group headed to a separate "target" site in the Atlantic Ocean a few miles southwest of the Massachusetts island.

A U.S. Navy search and recovery vessel was due in the area later in the day, but it was not immediately clear when divers from that ship would join the search.

Searchers said Sunday they were interested in "a couple of targets" spotted by sonar about 60 feet to 80 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But officials stressed the locations are "simply potential targets" and not necessarily plane wreckage.

The single-engine Piper Saratoga II HP, piloted by Kennedy, vanished on a flight from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard on Friday night.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee said Sunday that, given the time that has elapsed since the plane disappeared from radar, search officials have concluded it is unlikely that Kennedy; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; or his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, survived the crash.

Several search ships

Three vessels searched the coastal waters overnight, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Ed Cygan -- the Rude (pronounced "Rudy"), a sonar-equipped National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship, and two Coast Guard cutters, the Willow and the Sanibel.

A second sonar-equipped NOAA ship, the Whiting, was expected to arrive Monday.

The USS Grasp -- a Navy ship with extensive search-and-rescue capability -- also is scheduled to arrive in the area from Norfolk, Virginia. It carries underwater vehicles, called ROVs (remote-operated vehicles), Cygan said, and a crew of deep-water divers.

Also on Monday, a side-scanning sensor will be installed on the Willow, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Labine. The sensor, shaped like a torpedo, can examine a swath of ocean bottom 600 feet wide as it moves slowly along.

According to officials, recovering the plane's wreckage could take up to two weeks.

NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said an accident investigation could take six to nine months. But he conceded that even a lengthy investigation may not reveal what happened to the plane.

No Mayday call was ever made, and Kennedy apparently didn't stay in radio contact during his flight.

Beacon signal no lead after all

On Sunday, 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 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.

Sudden plunge

The Piper is believed to have plunged into the sea on Friday night, a day before Kennedy's cousin Rory Kennedy was to have been married on nearby Cape Cod.

NTSB chief investigator for the accident Robert Pearce said experts had discovered that the plane made a sudden drop of 700 feet to 1,800 feet in 29 seconds just after 9:40 p.m. Friday, below radar level.

He refused to say whether this sudden drop was abnormal and added, "Seven hundred feet in 29 seconds would relate to about 1,400 feet per minute, which was within the airplane's capabilities."

Since the search began early Saturday, a suitcase bearing Lauren Bessette's name, two aircraft headrests, a tire, some foam insulation consistent with the type that would surround an airplane cabin and some other aircraft parts have been located, most of it having washed up on beaches on the western part of Martha's Vineyard.

In water temperatures of about 68 degrees, it is unlikely that anyone could survive longer than 12 hours, Larrabee said Sunday. "We know that the aircraft was not equipped with any survival equipment -- life rafts, life jackets -- anything of that nature."

Wreckage recovery process
U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Pauls of the USS Grasp, a search and recovery ship, told CNN what's involved in lifting fragile wreckage from the ocean floor:

  • Once wreckage is found, divers will take pictures of it to help determine what kind of condition the plane is in.

  • If the wreckage is in large pieces, an effort will be made to bring them to the surface intact "because we want (crash investigators) to be able to look at the vehicle as it was on the ocean floor."

  • If the wreckage is in small pieces, they will be brought to the surface in baskets.

  • If bodies are found in the wreckage, they will be removed before any attempt is made to raise the wreckage.

Larrabee said he spent painful moments on the phone with the Kennedy and Bessette families late Sunday, telling them that hope had run out, and that the focus was being shifted away from rescue of any survivors to recovery of wreckage.

"It was very difficult to share this information with them," he said. "We offer our condolences to the families and loved ones."

Families mourn privately

Members of the Kennedy family on Monday attended a Catholic Mass at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport on Cape Cod.

The prayers were said in the large white tent that was to have been the site of Rory Kennedy's wedding, now postponed indefinitely.

Senator Edward Kennedy left Hyannisport Monday and flew to Long Island to console Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the senator's niece and the sister of John F. Kennedy Jr. Schlossberg had remained in seclusion at her Bridgehampton, New York. home with her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and their three children since learning of her brother's disappearance.

Sources told CNN White House correspondent Chris Black that Caroline Kennedy and her uncle would take the lead in making decisions as the Kennedy family grapples with the loss of JFK Jr.

There have been no public comments from either the Kennedy family, or the Bessette family in Connecticut.

Clinton expresses nation's grief

President Clinton referred to the tragedy in remarks Monday at a White House celebration for the World Cup champion U.S. women's soccer team.

"We all know this is both a moment of celebration and of sadness for the United States," Clinton said on the South Lawn.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of John Kennedy and Carolyn and Lauren Bessette. It is at times like this, that we really stop to recognize that, as big and diverse as our country is, we can come together as a national family," the president said.

Correspondents Carl Rochelle, Mike Boettcher, Chris Black and Martin Savidge contributed to this report.

NTSB: JFK Jr.'s plane shows no in-flight break-up or fire
July 30, 1999
At candlelight service for Lauren Bessette, mourners also pray for sister, Kennedy
July 25, 1999
Investigators to examine wreckage of Kennedy plane
July 26, 1999
Thousands turn out in Washington for Kennedy-Bessette memorial
July 25, 1999
Wreckage of Kennedy plane delivered to Cape Cod
July 24, 1999
Ted Kennedy pays tribute to his nephew
July 23, 1999
JFK Jr. remembered as legend with sense of humor
July 23, 1999
Memorial service attendees
July 23, 1999
Husband of '1,000 days' and 'perfect soul-mate' memorialized
July 23, 1999
Seeing the century through values and ambitions of Kennedys
July 22, 1999

National Transportation Safety Board
The New Piper Aircraft, Inc. "Saratoga II TC"
  • The New Piper Aircraft, Inc. "Piper Press Releases"
United States Coast Guard
Federal Aviation Administration
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • NOAA ship Whiting joins the Rude in search for Kennedy plane
  • NOAA Ship RUDE
  • Side Scan Sonar and Multibeam Sonar
Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce
  • Martha's Vineyard Beaches
  • Aquinnah Town Government
Massachusetts Community Profiles - Gay Head (Aquinnah)
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