Update - Plane wreckage, JFK Jr. Body Found

By Julia St. George | July 7, 2008 | 8:02 PM EDT

First write-thru with quotes from NTSB and divers update

CG Air Station Cape Cod - The body of John F. Kennedy Jr was reportedly found early this morning still inside the fuselage of plane that crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

White House sources have told the media that Navy divers working round the clock found a large section of the plane last night with Kennedy's body still on board.

A statement released this morning by National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall confirmed that large section of the plane was found last night, about 7 miles off the southwest coast of Aquinnah. In a written statement, Hall indicated that he, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee, and others had gone out to the USS Grasp this morning. The Navy ship was repositioned overnight, and is not situated over where the wreckage was found.

At this hour, divers are going into the water to more closely examine what they have found. Hall indicated in his statement that the divers primary mission will be recovery of the bodies. It did not indicate, however, whether the bodies of Kennedy's wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law, Lauren
Bessette, had also been found.

Federal investigators said yesterday that they believed they had targeted the splash point of the plane piloted by Kennedy about 7 miles from the southwestern tip of Martha's Vineyard.

The single-engine Piper Saratoga disappeared Friday night en route from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard. Investigators believe Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette, perished in the crash.

During a press briefing at Air Station Cape Cod yesterday, Robert Pearce, a chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said new radar data seems to indicate that Kennedy's plane may have plunged into the sea at a speed even faster than previous estimates. He said the rate of descent may have been more than 5,000 feet per minute. Estimates given on Monday were about 4,700 feet per minute.

The updated information is being collected from civilian and military facilities along Kennedy's presumed flight path. Along with air speeds and rates of descent, the data is giving investigators a picture of the maneuvers Kennedy went through as sped toward the island in dark, hazy skies.

According to Pearce, an analysis of radar data for the last seven minutes of Kennedy's flight has the plane descending from an altitude of 5,600 feet, at 700 feet per minute, some 34 miles from Martha's Vineyard Airport.

The descent continued for about five minutes, to 2,300 feet, until the plane was 20 miles from the airport. The plane then started a right turn and climbed back to 2,600 feet.

About a minute later, the plane began descending at 700 feet per minute, heading east. Thirty seconds into that turn, Pearce said, the airplane made a turn to the right and began its fatal plunge.

At that point, he said, the plane may have dropped more than 5,000 feet per minute. The gauge on Kennedy's plane topped out at 2,000 feet per minute.

Divers were put into the water yesterday but the depth and conditions limited their search.

Navy Capt. Bert Marsh, a supervisor for the salvage effort, described what the team is up against.

"What they're facing, essentially on the bottom, is a water temperature of around 52 degrees, the visibility is less than 8 feet, and there is a significant current that they are fighting against," Marsh said.

In addition, their gear limits them to about 15-minute dives, including the time spent diving down and coming to the surface, Marsh said.

As the intense, worldwide coverage of the massive search and recovery mission continued yesterday, Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB, again cautioned reporters about reading too much into the emerging data.

"I know that the competition in the news business is fierce. We see that in the number of individuals represented here and the number of cameras that we are looking out at," he said. "But neither the sensitivity of the families involved, nor the cause of aviation safety, or the information flow to the people that are watching this around the world, will be served by groundless speculation."

Cape Cod Journal