Through a twist of timing and circumstance, five young men from Calvert County and their ROTC commander witnessed firsthand an event that transfixed the nation last week: the private burial at sea of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister.
The five teenagers, all cadets in the ROTC program at Patuxent High School, and their commander, Michael Dvorsky, were aboard the USS Briscoe last week for what was supposed to be a routine trip to give them a taste of Navy life.
But when the USS Briscoe suddenly was dispatched from training operations off Virginia and rerouted to Nantucket Sound to pick up about 15 famous mourners, the group from Calvert County found themselves in the middle of history.
"It was, like, `Wow, I'm watching something that my kids 30 years from now are going to see on the History Channel,' " said Bryan Heaston, 17, of Lusby, who stood on an upper deck and watched the burial ceremony that took place on the destroyer's fantail below.
Heaston was the only member of the Calvert County group who was permitted to directly view the burial; the others watched the Kennedy and Bessette families board the boat and then went below deck with most of the crew to honor the Kennedy family's request for privacy.
The ship's executive officer allowed Heaston to watch because the teenager had met Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver just last month during a Special Olympics event in St. Mary's County. And last summer, Heaston also briefly met John F. Kennedy Jr. at a Wisconsin flight camp run by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
"It's weird. I mean, I met him last summer and then we buried him this summer," said Heaston, who otherwise mostly knew about Kennedy from his mother's subscription to George magazine. He called the ceremony "a very classy affair" that lasted just 30 minutes.
A brass quintet from the Newport Navy Band played "Eternal Father," a Navy hymn, when the ashes were scattered into the sea. The quintet also played "Abide With Me" and "For All the Saints."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen approved requests by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the Bessette family for the use of the Briscoe, which was notified Wednesday that it would participate in Thursday's ceremony. Two Navy chaplains and a civilian priest officiated at the burial.
Heaston said the ship's crew prepared for the burial the way it would for a military operation. "In the middle of the night, they had guys out painting the fantail," said Heaston, who helped swab the deck.
The ceremony took place about two miles from the spot where Kennedy's plane crashed July 16. Kennedy, 38, was flying his single-engine Piper Saratoga from New Jersey that night when it dropped from radar 16 1/2 miles from Martha's Vineyard Airport. Flight data showed the plane took a sharp dive, and the medical examiner said all three died instantly. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was 33 and her sister Lauren Bessette was 34.
The burial at sea was conducted in private, amid orders that planes keep five miles away. Boats were allowed no closer than a mile, leaving camera crews to film the motionless destroyer through long lenses and newscasters with little to report.
But the teenagers from Calvert County had plenty to tell their parents upon their arrival home Friday. "I thought it was just going to be a three-day tour," said Adam Langford, 16, of Lusby. "But it turned out to be pretty exciting."