Divers search two sites in Kennedy crash
Bessette family makes statement
July 19, 1999
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
NTSB: JFK Jr.'s plane shows no in-flight break-up or fire
National Transportation Safety Board
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