July 16

This Day in History

General Interest

Jul 16, 1999:

JFK Jr. killed in plane crash

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her sister, Lauren Bessette, die when the single-engine plane that Kennedy was piloting crashes into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., was born on November 25, 1960, just a few weeks after his father and namesake was elected the 35th president of the United States. On his third birthday, "John-John" attended the funeral of his assassinated father and was photographed saluting his father's coffin in a famous and searing image. Along with his sister, Caroline, he was raised in Manhattan by his mother, Jacqueline. After graduating from Brown University and a very brief acting stint, he attended New York University Law School. He passed the bar on his third try and worked in New York as an assistant district attorney, winning all six of his cases. In 1995, he founded the political magazine George, which grew to have a circulation of more than 400,000. Unlike many others in his famous family, he never sought public office himself.

Always in the media spotlight, he was celebrated for the good looks that he inherited from his parents. In 1988, he was named the "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine. He was linked romantically with several celebrities, including the actress Daryl Hannah, whom he dated for five years. In September 1996, he married girlfriend Carolyn Bessette, a fashion publicist. The two shared an apartment in New York City, where Kennedy was often seen inline skating in public. Known for his adventurous nature, he nonetheless took pains to separate himself from the more self-destructive behavior of some of the other men in the Kennedy clan.

On July 16, 1999, however, with about 300 hours of flying experience, Kennedy took off from Essex County airport in New Jersey and flew his single-engine plane into a hazy, moonless night. He had turned down an offer by one of his flight instructors to accompany him, saying he "wanted to do it alone." To reach his destination of Martha's Vineyard, he would have to fly 200 miles--the final phase over a dark, hazy ocean--and inexperienced pilots can lose sight of the horizon under such conditions. Unable to see shore lights or other landmarks, Kennedy would have to depend on his instruments, but he had not qualified for a license to fly with instruments only. In addition, he was recovering from a broken ankle, which might have affected his ability to pilot his plane.

At Martha's Vineyard, Kennedy was to drop off his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette, one of his two passengers. From there, Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn, were to fly on to the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod's Hyannis Port for the marriage of Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Robert F. Kennedy. The Piper Saratoga aircraft never made it to Martha's Vineyard. Radar data examined later showed the plane plummeting from 2,200 feet to 1,100 feet in a span of 14 seconds, a rate far beyond the aircraft's safe maximum. It then disappeared from the radar screen.

Kennedy's plane was reported missing by friends and family members, and an intensive rescue operation was launched by the Coast Guard, the navy, the air force, and civilians. After two days of searching, the thousands of people involved gave up hope of finding survivors and turned their efforts to recovering the wreckage of the aircraft and the bodies. Americans mourned the loss of the "crown prince" of one of the country's most admired families, a sadness that was especially poignant given the relentless string of tragedies that have haunted the Kennedy family over the years.

On July 21, navy divers recovered the bodies of JFK Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law from the wreckage of the plane, which was lying under 116 feet of water about eight miles off the Vineyard's shores. The next day, the cremated remains of the three were buried at sea during a ceremony on the USS Briscoe, a navy destroyer. A private mass for JFK Jr. and Carolyn was held on July 23 at the Church of St. Thomas More in Manhattan, where the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis worshipped. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, were among the 300 invited guests. The Kennedy family's surviving patriarch, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, delivered a moving eulogy: "From the first day of his life, John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family. He had a legacy, and he learned to treasure it. He was part of a legend, and he learned to live with it."

Investigators studying the wreckage of the Piper Saratoga found no problems with its mechanical or navigational systems. In their final report released in 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash was caused by an inexperienced pilot who became disoriented in the dark and lost control.

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