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Map of search area Map by Associated Press and

First a call of alarm, then debris and a growing sense of dread

By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff and Carlos Montje, Globe Correspondent, 07/18/99

The call came in to the Federal Aviation Administration at about 2 a.m. yesterday: an airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., expected to arrive on Martha's Vineyard just before 10 last night was four hours overdue.

It took nearly an hour and a half longer before an initial search was launched and his disappearance officially noted.

By dawn, hundreds of military and civilian rescuers had begun to scan more than 6,000 square miles of ocean and coastline from Long Island to Martha's Vineyard, searching for clues to the aircraft's fate.

At about 1:30 p.m., in the surf near Aquinnah, they'd found some: a headrest, bits of carpet, an aircraft support with a wheel attached, and a canvas bag with identification from Kennedy's sister-in-law -- one of the passengers on board the Piper Saratoga II.

By that point, Kennedy's plane, which took off from Caldwell Airfield in Fairfield, N.J., had been missing for more than 17 hours.

Judging by the debris, Coast Guard officials believe the airplane had ditched into the Atlantic, perhaps 17 miles short of the airport in West Tisbury. Kennedy and his passengers, wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette, were presumed dead.

"There's always hope, but unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything that happens,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Gary L. Jones.

The search, which included more than 20 helicopters, jets and light airplanes and several Coast Guard cutters and boats, was scheduled to continue through tonight, with sonar equipment brought in from a nearby federal research agency.

But without more wreckage, or a signal from the plane's on-board radio transponder, one officer said, trying to find it in such a massive search field was frustrating. Kennedy also had not filed a flight plan, a routine omission but one that may have delayed the start of the search.

"All we saw were waves breaking on rocks,'' said Greg Buonomo, a Suffolk County, N.Y., police officer who flew a Bell 206 helicopter from Islip, N.Y. to participate in the search.

"There was nothing out there,'' said his partner, Steve DeMeo. "If there is a search, you hope to find something.''

The long delay before the start of the search prompted some pointed questions to Air Force officials at a Pentagon briefing.

But Lt. Col. Steve Roark said searchers had not received a radio signal from the downed craft and decided to follow procedures and wait for daylight before beginning an aerial search.

"We look at possible other landing sites ... rather than just sending out aircraft willy-nilly,'' he said.

Roark also said the amount of resources devoted to the search wasn't influenced by Kennedy's celebrity status, as the son of President John F. Kennedy.

"We treat all the searches the same,'' he said. "There is no difference between celebrity and non-celebrity.''

The six-seat Piper Saratoga had left an airport in New Jersey at about 8:30 p.m. Friday and was apparently tracked by FAA radar officers as it approached the airport in West Tisbury until as late as 9:39 p.m.

Flying conditions were considered marginal because of a haze over the water, although visibility was more than 3 miles, and stars and a crescent moon could be seen.

Still, Kennedy was flying under what are known as "visual flight rules'' and wasn't in constant communication with the airport tower. Controllers likely assumed the plane had landed safely when it left the screen, officials said.

As a result, officials didn't began to receive formal warnings until around 2 a.m., they said, when family members contacted the Federal Aviation Administration with news the plane was overdue.

The first search aircraft took off around 7:30 a.m., the Air Force said. About 15 Civil Air Patrol planes were also dispatched, focusing on areas along the coastline and inland areas near Kennedy's presumed flight path.

Initially, searchers focused on the coordinates of a brief, weak radio emergency beacon, recorded at just after 2 a.m. on Long Island, N.Y. But that proved to be a false alarm, and by midmorning the search had been expanded to include the entire length of the plane's planned route from New Jersey up the coast.

After searching for hours without results, a rare piece of hard data turned up: a black canvas bag, floating in the surf near Aquinnah shortly after noon. A group of friends sunbathing on the beach spotted the luggage.

The bag's ID tag contained a Morgan Stanley business card belonging to Lauren Bessette.

"It was a terrible sinking feeling,'' said Damon Seligson, 30, a Boston lawyer who said he swam out to retrieve the luggage. "I felt my heart burst out of my chest. It was just terrible.''

The find helped direct searchers to areas much closer to Martha's Vineyard; by this evening, authorities said they had concentrated on an area 17 miles southwest of the island, where a debris field had begun to surface.

Another grim find came around 1:30 p.m. when a Coast Guard crew working in a small boat near the coast of Aquinnah found pieces of carpet and the headrest. Coast Guard Lt. Gary L. Jones said the items were "consistent with a plane crash.''

Jones also said bits of identifiable luggage had been found, but he would not give specifics.

In an ironic twist, the wreckage was found less than a mile from the estate of Kennedy's late mother, Jacqueline Kennnedy Onassis, on a point of land near Philbin Beach.

On the island, police used four-wheel all-terrain vehicles and an inflatable boat to comb beaches and inland areas, and cleared beachgoers from Philbin Beach and surrounding areas to ease the burden on searchers.

Mindful of the apparent accident, few complained.

"It's pretty sad,'' said Dailyn Higgins. "It's the kind of tragedy that this family always seems to be cursed with.''

"I really feel terrible for the family,'' said another beach-goer, Lauren Belafonte, a sales representative at Stuff At Night magazine who remembers seeing Caroline Bassett while a student at Boston University.

Matthew Brelis, John Yemma, Ellen O'Brien and Beth Carney of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jennifer Babson contributed to this report.


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