Remains of All Three Victims Scattered off Vineyard

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

Woods Hole, MA - In a somber ceremony taking place away from the public eye, the cremated remains of John F Kennedy Jr, his wife and sister-in-law were scattered this morning in waters off Martha's Vineyard.

Kennedy family members boarded the 563-foot Navy warship USS Briscoe shortly after 9 a.m., ferried from the Coast Guard dock aboard the cutter Sanibel. An hour later, the ship began its westward journey into Vineyard Sound.

The ship continued to the southside of Martha's Vineyard, with the ceremonies taking place near where Kennedy's plane went down Friday night. Navy divers recovered the bodies of Kennedy, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette Wednesday, 116 feet below the surface and 7 miles from shore.

Autopsy results revealed that all three victims died instantly from multiple traumatic injuries sustained in the crash, the Cape and Islands District Attorney's office said in a statement this morning.

The FAA banned flights within five miles of the ship this morning, so television coverage of the Briscoe's departure scaled back considerably once the ship began heading into Vineyard Sound. Boats were also ordered to come no closer than 2,000 yards.

Still, the impending ceremony, which was announced last night, drew crowds to Woods Hole roads and beaches along the Falmouth's south coast. As happened yesterday when the medical examiner's vans made their way up Woods Hole Road, bystanders threw roses and flowers as the cars carrying Kennedy family members drove past at 8:45 a.m.

About 15 Kennedy family members are onboard, including Kennedy's sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, his uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and cousins Maria Shriver and William Kennedy Smith. Family members of the Bessette sisters were also in attendance.

Three tightly wrapped American flags and three wreaths with red, yellow and white flowers had been placed on the ship before family members boarded. During burials at sea, it's often customary for the flags to be draped over the ashes while prayers are said and condolences given. After the ashes are scattered, the wreaths are dropped onto the water.

The Briscoe turned around at approximately 1 p.m. to return to Woods Hole.

The ceremony comes a day after the nation's five-day vigil of watching, waiting, hoping and praying ended, and Navy divers found and freed the bodies of the three from twisted fuselage on the sandy ocean floor.

The bodies were raised at 4:30 p.m. yesterday and brought by cutter to the Coast Guard station in Woods Hole. Sen. Edward Kennedy and his two sons, Patrick and Edward Jr., who were aboard the Navy's USS Grasp when the bodies were brought to the surface, accompanied the remains back to the Cape Cod base.

From there, two white vans carried the bodies to the Barnstable County Hospital in Pocasset, where the state medical examiner performed autopsies last night.

Navy officials said yesterday that the Kennedy family was preparing for a ceremony at sea aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer, and had received permission to do so from Defense Secretary William Cohen.

It is not a military service, but one allowed for civilians who have made outstanding contributions to the country. In this case, it is for Kennedy's charitable works. Once permission was granted, the USS Briscoe, a Navy destroyer, began heading for Cape Cod.

The Bessette and Kennedy families also announced memorial services for the three, who disappeared Friday night while flying to Martha's Vineyard in Kennedy's single-engine plane.

Yesterday's swiftly moving events brought closure to the families and to a country that has been transfixed by the massive search and rescue, then search and recovery, effort unfolding over the past five days.

"We are here to save lives, and we felt very optimistic that we would find people alive," Larrabee said. "That wasn't the case, and it was a very hard thing for those of us who save lives. But I think today, we were able to bring closure to two families, and I think we realize that's very important. And I think tonight, we can feel relatively good about our work."

It began at 6:30 a.m., when the USS Grasp, a Navy salvage ship, sent a remote-operated diving vehicle down to what searchers had unidentified as the plane's wreckage. Navy divers entered the water four hours later, and located an 8- to 10-foot section of the fuselage of Kennedy's Piper Saratoga just before noon.

The wreckage was in 116 feet of water, not far from where investigators believe the plane struck the water off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

"The major piece was intact, obviously very damaged, and there are parts of the wings that we have not recovered," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee said during a news briefing last night. "There are still pieces that are 20 to 40 meters away from the main wreckage."

Divers spent the day clearing wreckage and preparing the victims for removal, which occurred at approximately 4:30 p.m.

Larrabee said the bodies were raised "in a way that respected the situation they were in. ... It was something we were very, very sensitive to."

Larrabee, who was aboard the salvage ship with Senator Kennedy and Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, was asked by reporters to describe what else he observed.

"Generally speaking, twisted wreckage," he replied slowly. "Clearly the airplane colors were the airplane we were looking for. Wires, seats -- the kinds of things that you could imagine would be the result of a high-impact contact with the water."

The USS Grasp will spend the next two days removing the rest of the debris from the ocean floor, a task Navy officials said they feel confident can be accomplished.

The wreckage will be taken to a hangar at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, where investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board will begin to piece together the cause of Friday's accident. Hall said it will be six to nine months before the board completes its final report.

Hall said the NTSB won't have any further public comment on the case until all memorial services and remembrances are completed.

"I think the attention of this nation, and the attention of all of us for the next few days, might better be directed toward the contemplation of the three young lives lost in this tragedy," Hall said.