Transfixed by the grim story unfolding in the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Mass., Americans from President Clinton on down reacted yesterday with shock and disbelief to the apparent loss of yet another young and glamorous member of the nation's most famous family.
From the far West to the sweltering East, people were glued to televisions, radios and computer screens, hungry for any scraps of news about the continuing search for the small single-engine plane in which John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, disappeared on Friday night.
Television networks responded much as they did to the death of Princess Diana two years ago, preempting regular programming and calling in news anchors for continuous live coverage. The Chicago Sun-Times printed an extra edition of its Sunday paper on Saturday afternoon with the headline, "JFK JR.'S PLANE MISSING."
President Clinton, who is spending the weekend at Camp David, Md., learned of the plane's disappearance from his chief of staff, John D. Podesta, at 7 a.m., White House officials said.
Later, Clinton spoke by telephone with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John Kennedy's sister; with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his uncle; and with House and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, who is married to Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
"He wanted to let them know he was thinking about them, that we'll do everything we can and that our thoughts and prayers are with them," Lockhart said. "He is being kept fully informed of the ongoing search efforts."
Vice President Gore called Kennedy "an extraordinary young man, at the high noon of his life, who offers the promise of contributing so much more to our country."
"At the age of 3," Gore continued, "he was the most famous person in the world because with his innocent and brave young heart, he helped the nation and the world endure some of the hardest hours of our history. He has carried his legend with enormous grace -- and with a commitment to live up to his father's legacy and his mother's love."
Such was the public's appetite for information that the networks altered their Saturday sports programming, with ABC switching its British Open golf coverage to fellow Disney-owned ESPN and the Major League Soccer all-star game to ESPN2, the Associated Press reported.
Within a few hours of the first reports of the plane's disappearance, speculation about Kennedy's competence as a pilot had appeared on the Web site of Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge.
At Arlington National Cemetery, a bouquet of yellow flowers lay between the markers for President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. On the flower wrapper, someone had written "Praying for John, Jr."
Rick Ambrose of Beverly Hills, Calif., laid one long-stemmed red rose on top of each marker. He and his friend, Michael Murray, stepped back to stare at the memorial quietly.
"I thought we should come and pay our respects," said Ambrose, 36, a sales representative in town for business. "They're probably the most important American family in terms of projecting America's image . . . vitality, youth and courage."
Jacqueline Parker, 50, took a 4 1/2-hour bus ride from New York to Washington after she heard the news yesterday. She clutched two pink roses.
"This is for Jackie," Parker said, her voice cracking. "She lost her baby today. America lost that little boy."
Tourists Mary and Greg Alexander of Carthage, Mo., visited the grave site with their two young children. Cara, 7, was too young to understand. She kept asking why her mother was crying. Mary Alexander explained that she felt that children need to learn to admire people like the Kennedys. "They've always wanted to do something for their country," she said. "I wanted to give my kids a sense of this."
In Manhattan, as the thermometer climbed toward 100 degrees, people in tank tops and broad hats paused to read the latest news on Kennedy's disappearance as it flashed across the Fox News ticker on Sixth Avenue.
At the offices of George magazine on Broadway, staffers entered through a side door, some carrying bags from quickly ended weekends in the Hamptons. A young woman looked stricken as she hurried inside, and like the others, declined to comment.
The day passed quietly on Kennedy's TriBeCa block but for the press staking out the sidewalk across the street. The handful of residents from 20 N. Moore St. who left the building during the day did so quickly and without speaking to reporters.
Doris Denizard, a TriBeCa resident, stared at the front of the building, torn between mourning and hope.
"I remember when his father was killed -- I cried for three days," Denizard said. "I gave John F. Kennedy my first vote, because he was a Democrat, and because he was a Catholic. I will keep my fingers crossed for his son."
By late afternoon, a few bundles of wildflowers and roses lay tucked on the stoop. Ivana Trnik, a Canadian studying acting in Manhattan, was besieged by camera crews as she added a bouquet of purple irises. Trnik said that when she first arrived in the city she was hoping for a much different Kennedy moment.
"When you're in New York City, you can't not hope to bump into John Kennedy. Just this week, my friend and I bought a book on the best places to find him. We were going to go to Central Park today," Trnik said.