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Debris From Kennedy Plane Found

July 17, 1999 GMT

AQUINNAH, Mass. (AP) _ Searchers swept the waters off Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday, pressing a desperate hunt for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister, whose plane had vanished in the night. A piece of luggage from the plane was found off a Vineyard beach.

Fears grew that America’s most renowned political family had suffered another ghastly tragedy. The couple had been en route to Cape Cod and a Kennedy cousin’s wedding _ now postponed and replaced with prayers for the missing.

The 38-year-old Kennedy _ universally known as ``John John″ since he was a toddler in the White House, and once labeled the ``sexiest man alive″ by People magazine _ had obtained his pilot’s license just last year.

``We’re still pursuing an active search-and-rescue mission. There’s always hope,″ said Lt. Gary Jones of the Coast Guard office in Boston.

At Philbin Beach in Aquinnah _ the portion of the Vineyard popularly known as Gay Head _ ``some luggage,″ a wheel, a headrest and part of a plane support known as a strut had washed up, said Coast Guard Lt. Craig Jaramillo.

Erin McCarthy, 31, of Boston, said she saw the black bag in the water. A business card attached had the name of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s sister, Lauren Bessette, on it, she said.

Fellow vacationer Jennifer Maxwell said the bag was retrieved from the water by friend of hers. ``He was shaking like a leaf,″ she told CNN. ``It was, and still is, very haunting.″

The major television networks suspended their scheduled programming to focus on the search, and a nation once again found itself caught up in the sufferings of the closest thing to an American royal family.

The FAA reported the last contact with the plane during its final approach to the airport on the island off Cape Cod at 9:39 p.m., the Coast Guard said. ``The aircraft was due to arrive at Martha’s Vineyard around 10 p.m. and was later expected to fly to Hyannisport,″ the statement said.

No flight plan had been filed, and none was required.

Family members were assembled in Hyannisport , Mass., for the wedding of the late Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter Rory. A family friend reported the plane missing to the Coast Guard about 2:15 a.m.

Authorities said they did not start the search immediately, first trying to determine whether the plane landed elsewhere.


The Coast Guard and Air Force launched a search with planes, helicopters and boats between 7:30 a.m. and 7:55 a.m., said Lt. Col. Steve Roark, an official at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

``There is radar data″ to indicate the plane was off Martha’s Vineyard, said another Air Force officer. And the search, which at the start included Long Island Sound, soon zeroed in on the waters near the Vineyard.

In Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement confirming that the plane left the Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., about 8:30 p.m. Friday.

Eddie Martin, of Hyannisport, who described himself as a friend of the family, said the plane was stopping in Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Lauren Bessette, before Kennedy and his wife continued on to Hyannisport.

The Coast Guard identified the red-and-white plane as a single-engine, six-seat Piper 32 Saratoga, acquired recently by Kennedy. The plane is known in the aviation industry as a high-performance airplane with a good safety record.

Nonetheless, flying it at night, in a hazy sky and under visual flight rules _ the reported conditions Friday night _ is challenging.

``What the pilot wants to have is a relatively distinct horizon to see the ground and be able to determine the aircraft’s altitude by looking outside,″ said Warren Morningstar, a pilot and spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

``At night your visual horizon is not going to be as distinct, and if it’s hazy conditions, your vision is going to be obscured,″ Morningstar added.

The plane’s disappearance came one day before the 30th anniversary of the Chappaquiddick incident, in which Sen. Edward Kennedy’s car went off a bridge, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne on a tiny island adjacent to Martha’s Vineyard.

It was also three years to the day after the crash on July 17, 1996, of Paris-bound flight TWA800, off the south shore of Long Island, and 35 years after Ted Kennedy narrowly escaped death in a private plane crash in which he suffered a broken back.

Last Labor Day, Kennedy flew another plane _ its registration number, N529JK, paid tribute to his father’s May 29 birthday _ up to Hyannisport for a family get-together.

In an interview in May 1998, Kennedy told USA Today that he had he had gotten his license a few weeks before, but none of his relatives could be persuaded to fly with him.

``The only person I’ve been able to get to go up with me, who looks forward to it as much as I do, is my wife,″ he said. ``The second it was legal she came up with me.″

Now, ``whenever we want to get away, we can just get in a plane and fly off,″ he said

Caroline Kennedy was on a rafting trip in the West, according to CNN. She is the only other survivor of the young family that transfixed the world, four decades ago.

Kennedy’s disappearance sent a shudder across the country. The Chicago Sun-Times printed an extra edition of its Sunday paper with the news; in New York, at Yankee Stadium, fans were asked to rise for a moment of silent prayer.

JFK Jr. has lived entirely in the public eye, from his birth shortly after his father’s election as the nation’s 35th president, to his poignant salute on the day of his namesake’s funeral, to his romances with Daryl Hannah and Madonna.

Once an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, he more recently attracted attention with his political magazine, George, in which he once posed nude.

One of his few private moments was his Sept. 21, 1996 wedding to Bessette Kennedy, a former publicist for fashion designer Calvin Klein. They were wed in an ultra-private ceremony on a small island off the coast of Georgia, free of hovering helicopters and paparazzi.

Bessette Kennedy, 33, a doctor’s daughter from Greenwich, Conn., studied at Boston University before taking the public relations job in New York, where she met Kennedy.