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After massive and costly search, award ceremony honors efforts

By Erica Noonan, Associated Press, 07/30/99

BOSTON - The scene at a local Coast Guard command center Friday was all pomp and circumstance as some of the government's top brass passed out awards to those who helped search for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s downed plane.

Only allusions were made to the unusual scope of the efforts, which cost the Coast Guard alone more than $525,000, to recover the plane and the bodies of Kennedy, his wife and her sister, from the waters off Martha's Vineyard.

''The president made it clear we should have done what we did - go the extra mile for a family who has suffered so much and contributed so much,'' U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater told the crowd of 150, which included representatives from more than a dozen federal, state and local police and rescue agencies.

The ceremony focused on what Coast Guard Chaplain Thomasina Yuille called in her benediction ''a reward for a job well done.''

Slater and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy, along with security and public relations aides, traveled from Washington D.C. for the event. The cost to bring them to Boston and the price to stage the hourlong event were not immediately available.

By its own accounting, the Coast Guard - one of the numerous agencies involved in the efforts - incurred costs totaling $287,402 in the first two days of the search for Kennedy's missing Piper Saratoga II.

That initial effort, between July 17 and 19, involved patrol boats, helicopters and other aircraft stationed along the East Coast, including bases in Cape Cod; Montauk, N.Y; and Newport, R.I.

After the search for Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, turned from a search-and-rescue to a search-and-recovery operation, the Coast Guard spent about $240,440 over three days.

From July 19 to July 21, 291 mission hours were logged, said Coast Guard spokesman Mike Lapinski. The biggest expense was $115,302 spent on the 225-foot cutter, Willow, which was temporarily outfitted to carry a sonar system.

The second-largest expense was two 110-foot patrol boats, which cost more than $30,000, followed by $10,387 for 19 hours use of a 41-foot utility boat for security and detectoin of surface debris, he said.

The figures include fuel, maintenance and the salaries of people associated with the boats. The entire operation was already covered by this year's budget.

After the ceremony, Loy acknowledged this case was not the average search mission.

There was ''a uniqueness to this one, the same set of reasons that Americans reflected so heavily (in their interest in the case),'' he said.

But he said the Coast Guard was right to use as many resources as it did.

''We did the right thing in the right way. I firmly believe that,'' Loy said.

Lapinski said he was angered by criticism of agency's expenditures.

''During the same time as the Kennedy search we had two other search-and-rescues that actually took more resources,'' he said, referring to an unsuccessful search for a man who fell off his boat of the coast of Puerto Rico and the successful rescue of three fishermen off the coast of Hawaii.

''But nobody is talking about those cases because they didn't get all the (press) attention,'' he said.


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