Three died instantly, coroner reports
By Joanna Weiss and Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 07/23/99
CHILMARK - John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister died instantly when their plane plunged into the ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, the Massachusetts coroner said yesterday.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation continued. One source close to the probe said that all the wreckage of the plane was brought up, including the twisted fuselage and the cockpit panel.
The panel, which contains the flight instruments, including the air speed and airplane attitude indicators, could provide a wealth of information on the plane's performance at the moment it hit the water.
All three victims were probably alive when the plane hit, but died instantly, according to the report of Massachusetts Chief Medical Examiner Richard J. Evans.
After an examination that lasted less than four hours, Evans reported that all three died from ''multiple traumatic injuries.''
Investigators would not comment further on the condition of the bodies or on the details of coroner's report. And they would not say whether their study yielded insight into the biggest lingering question: Why did Kennedy lose control of his plane after starting a normal descent into Martha's Vineyard a week ago tonight?
The autopsy of a pilot or a passenger in a plane crash is usually less complex than that of a murder victim, experts in forensic pathology said. The cause of death is generally known, and the bodies do not always lead investigators closer to the cause of the wreck.
Still, the autopsies in the Kennedy case were performed especially quickly, pathologists said. The remains were taken to a Bourne hospital at about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday night and released to the victims' families at 11 p.m., according to the medical examiner's office and the Cape and Islands district attorney's office.
Many jurisdictions refuse to perform autopsies at night, said Robert Kirschner, a former deputy chief medical examiner for Cook County, Ill. The haste in this case, he said, could lead to questions about the investigation's thoroughness.
In a high-profile case, he said, the pressures are high, and so are the risks of carelessness. Kirschner pointed to other autopsies associated with the Kennedy family - the investigation that followed President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the questions surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne 30 years ago, in the Martha's Vineyard car crash on Chappaquiddick.
''You can't let ... those kinds of pressures alter your routines,'' Kirschner said. ''If you alter your procedure and do things differently, then you're always going to run into problems.''
Still, Jay Dix, chief medical examiner for several Missouri counties, said autopsies can usually be completed in 45 minutes to several hours, depending on the circumstances of the death.
In a plane crash case, pathologists first try to determine whether a medical condition, such as heart disease or a brain rupture, could have led the pilot to lose control, Kirschner said. Examiners might look at the pilot's lower extremities, checking for the impact of a rudder on the bottom of a shoe, or some other sign of what the pilot was doing.
Pathologists also follow complex rules for testing a pilot for drug and alcohol use, Dix said. After every plane crash, the NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration send investigating pathologists a box of containers and bags that are used to collect samples.
Autopsies of the plane's passengers are not always needed, Dix said, though pathologists usually perform X-rays to determine victims' injuries.
Passenger autopsies are also useful, Kirschner said, if a victim's family sues for damages related to the crash. A medical examiner could determine whether the victim suffered in the moments before death, or survived in the minutes or hours after the crash.
The timing of the Kennedy investigation, Kirschner said, makes it unlikely that pathologists performed autopsies on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy or Lauren Bessette.
''You can't possibly do three investigations in four hours,'' he said.
Still, Dix said, the speed of the investigation, and the fact that it was performed at night, probably will not affect the results.
''You have qualified people doing it,'' he said.
This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
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