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Kennedy, Bessette ashes cast from ship

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 07/23/99

AQUINNAH - Between a beach he loved and the site where his life ended in a terrifying crash, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s ashes and those of his wife and sister-in-law were given up yesterday to the waters that have brought joy to his family for generations.

In a private, closely guarded ceremony aboard a Navy destroyer, the remains of Kennedy, 38, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and Lauren Bessette, her 34-year-old sister, were laid in the choppy Atlantic Ocean. The age-old ceremony occurred in view of the shorefront estate of Kennedy's late mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, near where his small plane plunged into the sea last Friday night.

Invoking the mercies of God, a Roman Catholic priest and two Navy chaplains presided over a short, solemn ceremony on the deck of the USS Briscoe. Meanwhile, about 3 miles away, the USS Grasp, a Navy salvage ship, continued retrieving the wreckage of Kennedy's shattered aircraft.

One to three members at a time, the grieving family members cast the ashes into the ocean. A Navy brass quintet played, but the familiar strains of ''Taps'' were not heard at this non-military ceremony rarely allowed on a Navy ship for a civilian.

All along the shoreline of southwestern Martha's Vineyard, vacationers and Vineyarders, gripped for days by news of Kennedy's disappearance and the discovery of his remains, watched the drama from afar.

''I just feel devastated,'' said Pat Mutolo, a vacationer from Rochester, N.Y., whose voice broke with emotion as she watched the Briscoe's progress. ''I woke up to the news Saturday morning and said, `Oh, my God.' No family deserves this.''

The service, which concluded nearly a week of intense emotions after JFK Jr.'s plane was reported missing last Friday, began at 9:30 a.m. as the funeral party, led by Kennedy's uncle, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, left the family compound at Hyannis Port for Woods Hole. There, the Briscoe, a guided-missile destroyer, transported them to the burial site.

The warship moved at an almost processional pace past the jagged Gay Head cliffs and the beaches where bits of Kennedy's airplane were found.

The service, which began shortly before noon, was witnessed by about 15 members of the Kennedy and Bessette families, including Kennedy's sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg; his cousins Maria Shriver and William Kennedy Smith, and the Bessette sisters' mother, stepfather, and sister.

The party listened as the clergymen conducted the ritual of committing human remains to the sea. Kennedy's sister and uncle spoke at the somber service, which fulfilled John Kennedy Jr.'s wishes to be buried at sea - away from the public spotlight.

Shielded by Coast Guard vessels, the crew of the Briscoe ensured that privacy in a strictly enforced security zone that kept the news media, in chartered boats and TV helicopters, far away.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen approved the use of the Briscoe, which was diverted from maneuvers.

The bodies of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law had been recovered Wednesday afternoon, and their ashes scattered less than 24 hours after Navy divers lifted the remains from the ocean floor.

Hundreds of mourners lined the southwest shoreline of Martha's Vineyard from Aquinnah to the wild beaches along Moshup Trail, near the estate that Kennedy and his sister inherited from their mother.

Cami Stephens of Hyannis, watching the Briscoe return to Woods Hole, said she wanted to bid farewell to Kennedy, someone she knew and admired.

''He was down to earth - someone who'd get coffee up the street, someone who'd say `Hi,''' said Stephens. Kennedy and his family ''would make you feel like you were someone,'' she said. ''This, to me, it's like a nightmare.''

The mourners arriving in Woods Hole were quickly transported to the Briscoe by the Coast Guard vessel Sanibel. About 10 a.m., the Briscoe pulled up anchor and began its journey around Aquinnah in choppy seas.

At 11:20 a.m., 4 miles off the southern shore of Martha's Vineyard, the ship stopped. The crew then completed preparations for a ceremony that lasted 30 minutes.

The mourners returned to Woods Hole at 3:30 p.m. Senator Kennedy and the funeral party then proceeded to Hyannis Port for a private reception. Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, and most of John Kennedy Jr.'s cousins did not attend the ceremony on the Briscoe's deck.

Kennedy, a fledgling pilot, was at the controls of a newly purchased, high-performance airplane in a flight from Fairfield, N.J., to Martha's Vineyard last Friday, en route to a cousin's wedding in Hyannis Port the next day.

At 9:39 p.m., about an hour into his flight and less than 20 miles from the Martha's Vineyard airport, Kennedy's plane vanished from air traffic control radar screens.

Though the exact cause of the crash is not yet known, authorities say they believe Kennedy lost control of the single-engine airplane as he turned off the coast toward Martha's Vineyard in the murky night sky. The plane plunged into the sea in a corkscrew spiral at speeds of more than 5,000 feet per minute.

Thick haze that night undoubtedly hampered Kennedy's vision, aviation specialists said, and his limited experience in piloting the high-performance Piper Saratoga also may have contributed to the crash.

After an intensive search, the victims reportedly were discovered upside-down, strapped into their seats in or near the fuselage whose top was said to have been sheared away.

By midafternoon Wednesday, Navy divers had retrieved the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, and Bessette. At 7:15 p.m. that night, the remains were transported to Barnstable County Hospital in Bourne, where autopsies conducted by Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Richard J. Evans and Dr. James Weiner were completed by 11:15 p.m.

In a move to further protect Kennedy's privacy, the victims' families asked that photographs not be taken during the autopsies, fearful that the images eventually might surface in the tabloid press or on the Internet.

A memorial Mass for Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at St. Thomas More Church in New York, where Kennedy's mother often prayed. President and Hillary Clinton plan to attend. A memorial service for Lauren Bessette is set for 7 p.m. tomorrow at Christ Church in Greenwich, Conn.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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