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The inequality of 2 searches

By Adrian Walker, 07/19/99

For Jay Hayes, the search for the private plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, was a jarring mixture of the familiar and the surprising.

Familiar was the pain, the uncertainty, of sudden loss. On Christmas Eve in 1996, a Learjet piloted by a brother, Patrick Hayes, and the copilot Johan Schwartz disappeared from radar in the airspace above a municipal airport in Lebanon, N. H.

In their final communication with the control tower, tower officials said, they appeared to have been lost, disoriented. Then there was silence as their jet disappeared from the sky without a trace. No sign of them has been found.

Surprising, Hayes said, is the extensive search for the Kennedy plane. Although his brother's missing jet was the target of what has been described as the largest search in New Hampshire history, it bore little resemblance to the vast rescue effort mounted this weekend off Martha's Vineyard.

Like much of the nation, Hayes and his family were transfixed by the tragedy, and stung with grief for the Kennedy family, who have lost so much, so often. And yet it served only as a reminder that their efforts to find closure for their own tragedy have been fruitless.

Hayes disagreed with the many suggestions that the search for Kennedy might be excessive. ''The government is doing for him what they should have done for anyone else,'' he said yesterday.

As Hayes recalled it, his family's frustration began almost immediately. When his brother's plane disappeared, in an area bounded by deep wilderness and mountains and dotted by lakes and swamps, New Hampshire officials told him that a search mission would not begin for 36 hours. Exasperated family members began their own search on Christmas Day.

When the official search began, four planes from the New Hampshire Civil Air Patrol, as well as helicopters from the State Police and New Hampshire National Guard, and a corps of volunteers, searched a 30-square-mile area, to no avail.

The search for his brother's plane, long suspended officially, has carried on with the help of hundreds of volunteers, many of them recruited via the Internet. Volunteers plan a new 10-day search of a treacherous area of New Hampshire mountainside in the next few weeks, Hayes said.

Officials deny that there is anything out of the ordinary in the Kennedy investigation. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee declared Saturday that his agency works each case ''as if it were a member of our own family,'' and representatives of other agencies also deny that the Kennedys are getting special treatment, except perhaps from the news media.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigates about 3,000 aviation accidents a year. But it is unusual indeed to find its presidentially named head traveling to Martha's Vineyard to monitor the investigation of a crash with three victims, or to see the head of the board's regional office in Parsippany, N.J., personally directing the inquiry.

President Clinton, who has been in personal contact with Coast Guard officials in Boston, spoke briefly yesterday of the inspiration to public service, and of the private sacrifices, of the Kennedy family. No clearer signal could have been sent that this accident is receiving the highest priority.

This is not without precedent. French officials did not respond to the death of Princess Diana as if it were just another traffic fatality. A crash killing Diana is a special case; a plane crash with John F. Kennedy Jr. aboard is a special case.

It is out of character, in a sense. The Kennedys have a reputation for fighting for equal treatment for all, and there is no indication that they have sought special treament in this case. The massive search has been prompted, instead, by a perfectly appropriate outpouring of sympathy for all they have endured, all they have given. But it has to sting for those who have also suffered sudden loss, and found themselves left to cope with so much less support.

The lives of those aboard Kennedy's plane are no more valuable than those of Patrick Hayes and Johan Schwartz. Yet the private lives of the Kennedys have long been treated as public property, and the Kennedy family members as American royalty. In presumed death, as well, their tragedy inevitably becomes a national obsession. For the government, as well as the public, some lives mean more than others.

Adrian Walker can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 07/19/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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