JFK Jr., wife feared dead; Aircraft also carrying her sister vanishes off Massachusetts coast; They were en route to wedding; Luggage from airplane found by sunbathers off Martha's Vineyard


GAY HEAD, Mass. -- Helicopters swirled above the westernmost coast of Martha's Vineyard yesterday as rescue boats bobbed below, looking for the plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr. and the relatives who apparently crashed into the ocean with him in the latest tragedy to befall the country's most charmed and cursed family.

Police closed miles of beach here, where earlier in the day several vacationers and investigators reported finding debris -- including three pieces of luggage belonging to the family, the nose wheel of a plane of the same design as Kennedy's single-engine, six-seat Piper Saratoga, and a prescription drug bottle bearing the name of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.

Kennedy, 38; his wife, Carolyn, 33; and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, 34, left Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., at 8: 38 p.m. Friday, bound for the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Kennedy was believed to be piloting the plane.

It was expected on Martha's Vineyard, an island off Cape Cod, about 10 p.m. The Kennedy family alerted authorities about 2: 15 a.m. that the plane was overdue.

Yesterday, people gathered on bluffs above the rocky beach where rescuers are focusing their search. Few of the onlookers had much hope for a miracle and instead prayed for the lost travelers and the family enduring yet more grief.

"If you lived through that day when President Kennedy was shot, it's really even more of a tragedy," said Louise Grant, 52, of Newton, Mass., who was vacationing. "It really sickens you."

President Clinton, who is spending the weekend at Camp David in Western Maryland, was told about the disappearance of the Kennedy plane by his chief of staff, John Podesta, about 7 a.m., press secretary Joe Lockhart said. The president called members of the family and was being kept informed about the search.

"All our prayers and thoughts are with the families of those on board," Clinton said in a statement.

Kennedy's only sibling, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, cut short a rafting trip in the West and headed to Hyannis Port yesterday.

The Coast Guard and the Air Force's Civil Air Patrol called off their search about 9 p.m. yesterday. The Air National Guard planned to work through the night, searching by air with an infrared device.

Late last night, the National Transportation Safety Board said it also will investigate the aircraft's disappearance.

Massachusetts State Police divers were on the scene but would not enter the water until more evidence existed on where the plane went down.

Michael O'Keefe, first assistant district attorney for the Cape and Islands District, said last night at a news conference in West Tisbury, Martha's Vineyard, that the debris included a plane seat and a black metal cover from a foot pedal, which are consistent with the type of plane Kennedy was flying, and the prescription bottle.

One piece of luggage, O'Keefe said, contained Lauren Bessette's name tag and business card.

Despite the mounting evidence, officials refused to say no hope remained.

"As of right now, it's still a search-and-rescue operation," state police Capt. Robert Bird said last night. "We're still hoping that this is a rescue mission."

He said police have kept the Kennedy family informed of developments. But he would not divulge what was said.

The evidence is being kept in police custody on the island, he said, and he pleaded with residents who may find other items to contact investigators.

At Gay Head, Duke County emergency workers set up a command station about 200 yards from a lighthouse that was blinking red and white.

About a half-mile away, Gordon Campbell, 34, was among those who found the luggage.

"It was kind of spooky because you knew who it belonged to," he said.

Campbell said he had flown his plane about 11 a.m. yesterday from Westchester, N.Y. He has made the flight many times, he said. And even during the day yesterday, a thick haze, like what Kennedy would have encountered, made it difficult to navigate.

"I would have never done it at night," he said. "If you get distracted, if you're working the radio or something, you can get in trouble."

Of the pieces of luggage, Campbell said, "They were perfectly intact, just soaking wet."

He described the luggage as a black garment bag, an aqua-green duffel bag and a small, black attache case.

The luggage was floating about 50 yards from shore when beach-goers noticed it, waded out and dragged it back to the beach, Campbell said.

Police said they received a call yesterday morning from a fisherman -- a vacationing Pittsburgh lawyer who was surf-casting Friday night -- who might have seen the plane going down.

"The plane was about two to three miles offshore and only 30 or 40 feet off the water, and then it just disappeared," said Officer Henry Meyer of the West Tisbury Police Department.

Though he refused to speculate, Meyer said the location of the debris was consistent with a missed approach to one of the airport's runways.

He said there was evidence of a plane missing a runway at about the time Kennedy's plane is presumed to have gone down. "It was flying so low it shook the windows of one of our sergeants, who lives next to the airport," Meyer said.

The last contact with Kennedy's aircraft was at 9: 39 p.m. Friday, the Coast Guard said.

At a briefing yesterday afternoon, Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee, commander of the 1st Coast Guard District in Boston, said Coast Guard ships, Air Force helicopters, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration subsurface surveillance ship and Navy salvage ships were expected to join the search.

The water in the area ranges from 20 to 100 feet deep, with temperatures in the upper 60s, Coast Guard officials said.

The search began about 4: 30 yesterday morning, some two hours after a Kennedy family friend called the Coast Guard station at Woods Hole, about 30 miles west of Hyannis Port.

Kennedy's Piper was scheduled to arrive about 10 p.m. at Martha's Vineyard, where Lauren Bessette was scheduled to stay. Kennedy and his wife were then expected to fly on to Hyannis Port.

No flight plan was submitted, although it is rare to submit one for a short flight under good visibility, officials said.

Officials said Kennedy's plane would have been equipped with an emergency beacon that could have been activated manually or on impact. The beacon's signal can be picked up by radio, officials said, but would be impeded if the plane sank.

The Woods Hole station notified the Coast Guard district headquarters in Boston, which called the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA officials "started an aggressive communications search of their system, including other airfields, communications centers as well as their flight notification systems," Larrabee said.

After the records check, the FAA determined an emergency beacon was sounded off the northern tip of Long Island in the Montauk area about 2: 15 a.m. yesterday. A Coast Guard cutter began an extensive search about 3: 30 a.m. After three hours, nothing was found, Larrabee said.

"We began a more aggressive search," he said, using two Coast Guard HH-60 helicopters and a surveillance plane, along with 15 small aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force's civilian auxiliary wing. An Air National Guard HC-130 plane served as the command-and-control aircraft, coordinating the search.

"We found ourselves searching a large area," extending 1,000 square miles from the Fairfield airport to the water around Martha's Vineyard, Larrabee said.

The search was first coordinated by the Air Force's Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. Later, with the search primarily over water, the Coast Guard took control of the operation.

Early in the afternoon, the search centered in an area 17 miles southwest of Martha's Vineyard, where authorities said they picked up the last radar contact at 9: 39 p.m. Friday, the FAA said in a statement. That area would also be in the expected flight path of the plane.

Larrabee denied that the intense search was the result of Kennedy's celebrity status. "We treat all searches the same. There's no difference between a celebrity and a noncelebrity," he said.

On Martha's Vineyard, John Chapman, 52, of Vineyard Haven said the western part of the island has a jagged coastline, with no harbors and few boats to quickly begin a search.

When he first heard that Kennedy was missing, Chapman said, "It was, like, no, that's not a good joke. But it was true.

"This is another tragedy of the Kennedys," Chapman said. "And you don't want to hear about that."

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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