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Divers brave cold, murky water to recover Kennedy plane

The USS Grasp and Coast Guard cutter Sanibel preserve the accident scene

The bodies of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Lauren Bessette, have been found off Martha's Vineyard. CNN's Carl Rochelle reports.
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July 21, 1999
Web posted at: 4:47 p.m. EDT (2047 GMT)

In this story:

Investigators to raise plane

Wreck close to estimated position


AQUINNAH, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Divers, hoping to recover the remains of John F. Kennedy Jr. and find the bodies of his wife and sister-in-law, faced chilly, murky conditions Wednesday in the waters off Martha's Vineyard.

A remotely operated probe from the salvage ship USS Grasp discovered a piece of the fuselage from Kennedy's single-engine plane Tuesday night, with Kennedy's body nearby.

The U.S. Coast Guard closed off the seas over the plane's wreckage Wednesday as divers began efforts to bring Kennedy's body to the surface and locate the remains of his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette. Searchers' priority was to locate and recover the remains of the two women, officials said.

The wreckage was discovered in 115 feet of water, about seven and a half miles southwest of the Massachusetts resort island of Martha's Vineyard. Rescue officials describe the ocean floor around the crash site as "very difficult, very murky."

Despite blue skies and calm waters on the surface, underwater visibility in the search area was only about six to eight feet. The water temperature was about 52 degrees Fahrenheit, and divers were only able to work for about 15 minutes at a time.

The research vessel Rude, equipped with an advanced sonar system, continued to map the ocean floor in the area as well. Private pleasure craft occasionally tried to move into the search area on Wednesday, but they were chased off by various warnings and Coast Guard cutters that enforced a 4,000-yard safety zone around the site.

Investigators to raise plane

Eventually, however, National Transportation Safety Board investigators want to see the Piper Saratoga II in as close to the same condition as it was when it rested on the ocean floor, said Michael Goldfarb, a former Federal Aviation Administration chief of staff.

"A large piece of a small plane is a significant amount of discovery," Goldfarb said.

Added Cmdr. Jefferey Pauls, the Grasp's captain, "If it's basically in one or two large pieces, we will try to bring those pieces up intact ... We want the NTSB to be able to look at the vehicle as it was sitting on the bottom."

The Grasp uses its remotely operated vehicle to save divers time and effort, said Will Sellers, who pilots a probe similar to the salvage ship's.

"The ROV can stay down all day long, and when they find something that they can look at that is within scuba depth, then they will send the divers in," Sellers told CNN.

Divers search for debris from the plane crash  

Wreck close to estimated position

The wreckage turned up within half a mile of the point where investigators, working from FAA, NTSB and preliminary radar data, suspected the plane had crashed.

"It was in very close proximity to the theoretical position that we had calculated," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee said.

Ellsworth Peterson, the Grasp's builder, said salvage ships should have no trouble bringing Kennedy's plane to the surface.

"They're tough enough to pull an aircraft carrier around. They can salvage stuff as deep as 600 feet and 400 tons, which is of course a lot more tonnage than is needed for an airplane," Peterson said.

Correspondents Frank Buckley and Carl Rochelle contributed to this report.

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Federal Aviation Administration
National Transportation Safety Board
The New Piper Aircraft, Inc. "Saratoga II TC"
  • The New Piper Aircraft, Inc. "Piper Press Releases"
United States Coast Guard
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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