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AP Was There: Sen. Kennedy’s fateful crash on Chappaquiddick

By The Associated PressJuly 16, 2019
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FILE - In this July 19, 1969 file photograph, crowds watch as U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's car is pulled from water at the Dyke Bridge in Edgartown, Mass. It's been 50 years since the fateful automobile accident that killed a woman and thwarted Kennedy's presidential aspirations. (AP Photo, File)
1 of 10
FILE - In this July 19, 1969 file photograph, crowds watch as U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's car is pulled from water at the Dyke Bridge in Edgartown, Mass. It's been 50 years since the fateful automobile accident that killed a woman and thwarted Kennedy's presidential aspirations. (AP Photo, File)

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1969 car crash on Chappaquiddick Island killed a woman — and ended any aspirations he had of challenging President Richard Nixon in 1972.

Kennedy was driving after a party on Martha’s Vineyard, off Massachusetts, when his Oldsmobile sedan veered off a narrow bridge and plunged into a moonlit pond. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Kennedy escaped but waited 10 hours to report the accident, a lapse in judgment historians say cost him the presidency.

The Associated Press was there and published this story on July 19, 1969, the day after the crash. It was written by Cornelius F. Hurley.

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EDGARTOWN, Mass. (AP) — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., escaped injury but a former secretary of his late brother, Robert, was killed when their car plunged into a tidal pond and sank about midnight Friday.

The accident went unreported for several hours.

The incident occurred on Chappaquiddick Island at Martha’s Vineyard, about 17 miles across the bay from the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport on Cape Cod.

It was the second time Kennedy was nearly killed. He suffered a broken back in a plane crash five years ago. All three of his older brothers met violent death.

Killed was Mary Jo Kopechne of Washington, a 29-year-old slim blonde who had worked as a secretary for Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., and Sen. George Smathers, D-Fla. She was currently employed with Matt Reese & Associates, a Washington political consulting firm.

Kennedy was unharmed but said he was in a state of shock for several hours before reporting the accident to police about 9:30 a.m.

“I have no recollection of how I got out of the car,” Kennedy said.

A medical examiner ruled Miss Kopechne drowned.

Kennedy said he dove several times attempting to rescue her from the car.

Police said her body was found in the back seat.

Kennedy told police he was driving back to Edgartown when he took a wrong turn on the unfamiliar road. He said his car went off the narrow, humpbacked bridge and plunged into the pond.

Police said the bridge, which has no railings, is used mainly by pedestrians and is in an isolated area.

Kennedy gave police this written statement regarding the accident:

“The car turned over and sank in the water, and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and window of the car but I have no recollection of how I got out of the car.

“I came to the surface and repeatedly dove down to see if the passenger was still in it. I was unsuccessful in the attempt.

“I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the back seat. I then asked someone to bring me back to Edgartown.

“I remember walking around for a period of time and then going to my hotel room. When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately went to police.”

Medical Examiner Donald Mills quoted Dist. Atty. Edmund Dinis’s office as saying an autopsy would not be needed.

Police Chief James Arena said: “The tragedy is strictly accidental,” and he added that apparently “excessive speed” was not the cause.

Mills said cause of death was “completely obvious.”

He said he saw the body about 9:30 a.m. The woman was clothed in a white blouse and slacks.

The body is to be flown to Plymouth, Pa., Miss Kopechne’s hometown, for funeral services.

Mrs. Joseph Kopechne of Berkeley Heights, N.J., mother of the victim, said that as far as her daughter was concerned, “the Kennedys could do no wrong.

“Her admiration for the Kennedys was what took her to Washington to begin with. She was pretty well wrapped up in politics. That would have been her life.”

A source close to the Kennedys who asked not to be identified said the senator was still in a state of shock and was unable to hold a press conference to discuss the accident.

In Washington a spokesman for Kennedy said the senator had dropped in on a party of former campaign workers for the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and had offered to drive Miss Kopechne to a ferry landing on the island so she could return to Martha’s Vineyard.

The spokesman said the party was held in conjunction with a regatta earlier in the day but he did not know where the party was held.

Miss Carmen Salvador, a policewoman on duty when Kennedy arrived at the station, said “he looked pretty shook up and concerned.”

Arena said his first word of the accident came in a call from a Chappaquiddick resident.

“I went over there and saw a car in the water upside down. You could just about see one of the tires,” Arena said.

“I borrowed a bathing suit and dove in. I couldn’t see much, because of the strong current. The top of the car was crushed. I couldn’t get in, so I sent for a scuba diver,” he said.

The diver, John Farrar, an Edgartown fireman, went down to the sunken car.

“He attached a rope to her and I assisted him in pulling (the girl) up,” Arena said.

He said it was after the body was on land that he received a call that Kennedy had arrived at the police station.

“When I came in here, he was here with Paul Markham, the former U.S. district attorney,” Arena said.

But he said Kennedy, 36, made his report and that he was questioned then.

“I was satisfied with his answers,” Arena said.

Kennedy returned to Hyannis Port, Mass.

Chappaquiddick is an island that lies off the southeasterly corner of Martha’s Vineyard island. It is separated from the larger island by Katama Bay and a narrow channel across which a small ferry operates.

The ferry has a capacity of two cars, plus a small number of pedestrians.

The accident was the second near-fatal one for the youngest and only surviving Kennedy brother. He suffered extensive back injuries June 19, 1964 when involved in an airplane crash.

His brothers John and Robert died of assassins’ bullets.

Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., eldest of the four sons, was killed in World War II.

Miss Kopechne was employed in Washington by Matt Reese and Associates, a political consulting firm.

Reese said he employed Miss Kopechne, whom he described as an attractive blonde, last September, having become acquainted with her while she was employed on the staff of Sen. Robert Kennedy. He said she was on the Robert Kennedy staff at the time he was assassinated in Los Angeles June 6, 1968, and had been with him for three or four years.

Miss Kopechne, Reese said, shared a house in Washington’s Georgetown section with several other young women, including Miss Nancy Lyon, a member of the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Reese said Miss Kopechne asked to leave work early last Thursday and to be absent Friday and Monday for a long weekend. She said she was going to Cape Cod, where she had acquaintances from her years on the Robert Kennedy staff.

Miss Margaret Carroll, an editor for the Center of Political Research, said she had shared the Georgetown house with Miss Kopechne for six years. Her third roommate is Miss Carol Littlejohn, an employee of the U.S. Office of Education.

Miss Kopechne’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kopechne, live in Berkeley Heights, N.J., Miss Carroll said.

A spokesman in Edward Kennedy’s office said the senator’s wife, Joan, and their children have been at the Kennedy home on Squaw Island, near Hyannis Port, for the past several days.

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