Jfk Jr.'S Final Journey

Inside the church, the grief was real. Sen. Edward Kennedy's voice caught as he read his lovely eulogy, and when he was done, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg stood up and hugged him. She bravely read from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" ("Our revels now are ended. We are such stuff as dreams are made on"). Many of the 315 mourners, family and friends of the Kennedys and Bessettes, swallowed hard through a gospel choir's rendition of "Amazing Grace," and afterward, they sang lustily as Uncle Teddy led the old Irish songs at the wake.

After the last eulogy was said, the last tear fell and the last camera clicked off, there remained the painful thought of what might have been. John F. Kennedy Jr. "had only just begun," said his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy. "There was in him a great promise of things to come."

Outside the church, where the cameras peered and the talking heads spoke in low and mournful tones, the sorrow seemed more contrived. In a celebrity age, without any overarching national crisis, the media (NEWSWEEK included) have established a culture of grief. These spectacles of sorrow--for dead soldiers or victims of crime or terror, for lost celebrities from rock stars to princesses to presidents--do serve a purpose. They offer outlets for grief that cannot be expressed in other ways, they teach small history and civics lessons, they can bring a disparate country together, at least for a moment. But they are slightly unreal. The public tunes in, sheds a tear--then tunes out, until the next episode.

The temptation is to make the facts of JFK Jr.'s demise as epic as the drama of his burial and mourning. But the handsome and amiable son of the 35th president of the United States was not done in by some fatal character flaw or Jovian thunderbolt. A reconstruction of Kennedy's last hours shows that, in all likelihood, no one person or event was to blame for the crash of his plane. Kennedy and his wife and his sister-in-law Lauren were doomed by an accretion of poor timing, iffy judgment and bad luck--possibly including an inaccurate weather forecast.

By all accounts, JFK Jr. was in a buoyant mood when he arrived at work on the morning of Friday, July 16. The bosses at Hachette Filipacchi, publisher of his financially troubled magazine, George, had been complaining to him about declining ads and circulation. But earlier in the week Kennedy, accompanied by an instructor, had flown to Canada, where he had chatted up Keith Stein, the vice president of an auto-parts manufacturer, about pulling together some investors to plow new money into the magazine. More immediately, Kennedy was happy to be walking without a plastic orthopedic device for his left ankle, which he had broken in May. Kennedy told friends that a doctor had cleared him to fly his airplane solo again. He would no longer have to take along an instructor pilot.

Kennedy loved the freedom of flying. More than 20 years ago, a friend, John Perry Barlow, had taken the teenage Kennedy aloft in his Cessna and given him the controls. Kennedy was thrilled. "You mean this is all there is to it?" he asked. "Well," answered Barlow, "there's taking off and landing." Flying, like sailing, appealed to the Kennedys' sense of romance and daring. Watching a jet pass overhead as he sailed off Cape Cod many years ago, President Kennedy dreamily wondered aloud: if he was aboard a plane and the pilot suddenly died, could he fly it, wrestling with the controls? As a little boy JFK Jr. absorbed the legend of his uncle Joe, a Navy aviator who died on a dangerous mission in World War II. The fascination with flying endured: friends recall young Kennedy's memorizing the make and design of different aircraft.

In 1998, after his mother died, JFK Jr. got his pilot's license. He was said by former instructors to be a good pilot with 200 hours' experience. Kennedy was learning how to fly a plane by instruments alone, although he had not yet passed a licensing test. His friend Barlow says that he recently told JFK Jr., "You're right at that point in someone's flying career that you know just enough to be dangerous." Still, Barlow did not consider Kennedy reckless. "He had this incredibly fine-tuned sense of the edge," says Barlow. "He loved to be on it. He knew it well. But he had no death wish. He wasn't self-destructive."

In 1996, Kennedy had taken up an extreme sport called paragliding. He bought a contraption called a Buckeye, a three-wheeled powered go-cart with a parachute. Kennedy showed up to fly the Buckeye wearing a helmet bearing the insignia of his uncle Joe's old fighter squadron. When he went up for the first time, he didn't want to come down, according to Lloyd Howard, who sold him the craft. Paragliding can be risky. Over Memorial Day weekend, Kennedy broke his ankle landing his Buckeye.

He wanted to waste no time getting back in the cockpit. The ankle brace came off on Thursday, July 15. The next evening Kennedy planned to fly his wife, Carolyn, to the family compound in Hyannis Port for the wedding of his cousin Rory, to be held Saturday afternoon. On his trip to Canada, Kennedy had remarked to Keith Stein that he preferred to fly at night, but he apparently intended to make this flight while it was still twilight. He told a friend that he would join him for dinner on Nantucket Island on the way to Hyannis. Then he called back to cancel, saying that he needed to drop off Carolyn's sister Lauren on the neighboring island of Martha's Vineyard. Friends of Lauren Bessette's were already awaiting her at the airport in Martha's Vineyard at 8:30 p.m., just around sunset.

Kennedy was apparently delayed, though it's not exactly clear why. Early reports, quoting sources in the Kennedy family, said that he had been held up by Lauren, a hard-charging investment banker for high-powered Morgan Stanley. But Bessette's secretary told a colleague that on Friday afternoon her boss was just "hanging out," chatting with friends on the phone. Kennedy spent the afternoon meeting with his staffers at George. Shortly after 4 p.m., he took time to send a consoling e-mail to a friend who had just watched his mother die of cancer. At some point that afternoon, Kennedy went to his gym for a workout. At about 6:30 p.m., Lauren walked over the few blocks from her midtown office to the George offices. They headed out of Manhattan in JFK's white convertible.

Friday-night traffic was thick leaving New York. The drive to Essex County airport in Fairfield, N.J., normally 45 minutes, took almost an hour and a half. John and Lauren were met at the airport by Carolyn, who was brought from Manhattan by a car service. Shortly after 8 p.m., still limping from his ankle injury, Kennedy bought some last-minute supplies--three bananas, some water and batteries--at the gas station across from the airport, then inspected his plane. At 8:38--12 minutes after sunset--he took off and headed east. Watching him go, another pilot, Kyle Bailey, says he told his family, "I can't believe he's going up in that weather." Bailey's remarks were widely quoted in the postmortems of Kennedy's crash. But knowledgeable sources told NEWSWEEK that federal investigators are looking into the possibility that Kennedy was lulled into complacency by erroneous weather information from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Weather Bureau. Pilots calling for an official weather briefing were told that the visibility at Kennedy's destination was more than eight miles--adequate for a pilot flying by the naked eye or "VFR"--visual flight rules. Investigators are trying to find out if Kennedy called for such a briefing. Pilots routinely use an 800 number to check in with the FAA weather briefers before embarking on any flight. (The FAA refuses to comment while the investigation continues.)

By 9:15 p.m., as darkness was enveloping the East Coast, Kennedy was flying along the Connecticut shore. At Westerly, R.I., he swung out to sea toward Martha's Vineyard. Radar information show that some 34 miles from the island he began to slowly descend, from 5,600 feet to 2,300 feet. As he descended, he may have had an uneasy sensation.

He was dropping into the dregs of an exceptionally hazy summer night. Dr. Bob Arnot, an NBC News medical correspondent on his way to his vacation home on Nantucket, flew his private plane over roughly the same route only 15 minutes earlier. Arnot told NEWSWEEK that he suggested to his nephew, who was traveling with him, that he might see, down below, the lights of Martha's Vineyard. "There's nothing there," came the reply. Arnot could see no land, no lights and no horizon. "When I went through that corridor, I couldn't see anything at all," he said. "It was murky black."

A pilot who loses the horizon can become disoriented, unable to tell up from down. An experienced pilot will not trust his natural instincts, but rely solely on his instrument panel to tell if the plane is flying level. In the soup off Martha's Vineyard, Arnot turned to his instruments.

Did JFK Jr., too, begin to scrutinize the dials on his instrument panel? He may have, but something went wrong. Radar data show him making a right-hand turn and an unexpected climb about 20 miles shy of Martha's Vineyard--out to sea. He apparently corrected himself, because the plane turned left a minute later and resumed its regular eastward course. But only for another minute: then came another right-hand turn, this time into calamity.

The radar data show Kennedy's plane suddenly plunging at a rate of nearly 100 feet a second. The best guess is that he was caught in what pilots call a "dead man's spiral." Banking to one side, he accidentally dropped his nose into a gentle spiral, which suddenly and violently accelerated. The natural instinct is to yank the steering "yoke" back to lift the nose. But such a maneuver will only plunge the plane into a steeper dive. The only way out of a dead man's spiral is to use the wheel to level the wings. But Kennedy, disoriented, with strong G-forces pressing in on him, apparently could not level off. His injured left ankle was probably not a big factor. The pedals work the rudder, which is not nearly as critical as the ailerons along the wing, controlled by the steering column. In any case, Kennedy was already so close to the water that he didn't have much time. The terror of the final dive probably lasted no more than 20 or 30 seconds.

They found the bodies, still strapped into their seats, upside-down in a hunk of fuselage 116 feet below the surface. An autopsy showed that all three passengers died instantly on impact. Recovering most of the plane, investigators saw no obvious sign of mechanical malfunction.

The limited scale of the memorial service did not suit everyone in the Kennedy clan, according to sources close to the family. Edward Kennedy, the paterfamilias, wanted a large, public ceremony. But JFK's sister, Caroline, insisted on a small, private service. This is an old tension in the family. Teddy and Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel, and her children are political and turn outward. Remembering their mother's admonitions, the JFK children have tended to seek privacy and turn inward.

Caroline prevailed. She chose the small, quietly elegant church where her mother worshiped, St. Thomas More, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. JFK Jr. had apparently expressed a desire to be buried at sea. Spreading his ashes over the ocean had another virtue: there would be no grave to be defaced by the inevitable ghouls or turned into a maudlin spectacle like the doorway of his Manhattan loft. In deference to the wishes of the family, the Navy kept press helicopters at least 10 miles away from the destroyer Briscoe as it steamed down Vineyard Sound on Thursday, carrying the last remains of JFK Jr. and the Bessettes.

On a bluff at the tip of Martha's Vineyard, not far from the 400-acre estate Jackie Kennedy left her children, a crowd of about 150 tourists and locals gathered to watch the slow passage of the warship. The mood was an odd mixture of funereal solemnity and photo op. Fathers with cameras dangling around their necks positioned their families with the distant Briscoe as a backdrop. "Say cheese" could be heard more often than the occasional sob.

Aboard the destroyer, a band played the Navy Hymn. On the ship's fantail stood the Kennedys and Bessettes in black, the ship's crew in dress whites. An officer carried the three urns of ashes down a steep ladder to a small platform above the tossing waves. Family members followed and spread the ashes of their kin upon the sea. "We commit their elements to the deep, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return, but the Lord Jesus Christ will change our bodies to be like his in glory, for he is risen the first born from the dead," intoned Rear Adm. Barry Black, the Navy's deputy chief of chaplains. "So let us commend our brother and sisters to the Lord, that the Lord may embrace them in peace and raise them up on the last day." Exalted words in an extraordinary setting, but meant for every man and woman.

Jfk Jr.'S Final Journey | News