Navy divers recovered the bodies of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law from the wreckage of the Kennedy plane in seas southwest of Martha's Vineyard today, ending a period of uncertainty for their families and putting investigators closer to finding out what caused the fatal crash.
After scouring the ocean floor for about 18 hours, the recovery team identified the bodies of Kennedy, 38, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34, about 10:30 a.m. today in 116 feet of water 7.5 miles off the Vineyard's shores, Coast Guard officials said.
Kennedy's body was found in the cockpit, and the women's bodies were found amid the twisted wreckage. All three were still strapped in their seats, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee said.
Sources close to the investigation also said today that preliminary radar information shows no evidence that Kennedy's plane crashed as a result of breaking up in flight.
Investigators have now combed through data from numerous radar installations in the area, and none shows any additional objects in the vicinity of the Kennedy plane, either as it began its final maneuvers or as it plunged toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The discovery of the bodies brought some relief to the families, who mostly have remained in seclusion since the plane was reported missing early Saturday morning. And it prompted an outpouring of renewed mourning among Americans -- at makeshift memorials in Manhattan and Arlington and at the Kennedy museum in Hyannis.
Shortly after the bodies were discovered today, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), were flown from the family compound in Hyannis Port aboard a Coast Guard helicopter and taken to the USS Grasp, at the crash site, for a briefing on the recovery effort. The bodies were brought up from the ocean floor about 4:30 p.m., Larrabee said, and taken to the medical examiner's office in Woods Hole for autopsies.
The unprecedented interagency effort to recover the bodies and wreckage of a private plane flown by a private citizen is testament to the deep symbolism and historical importance that many Americans attach to the Kennedy name. The effort also has raised questions about whether other private citizens would receive similar treatment. President Clinton, who is close to the Kennedy family, defended the effort at a news conference today and said he had spoken with Navy officials Monday about whether the search should continue. The officials believed they could succeed with more time, and Clinton recounted today that he told them "I would support and defend" a decision to continue.
The Kennedy and Bessette families today announced plans for private memorial services. A service for Kennedy and his wife will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Thomas More church in Manhattan, where Kennedy's mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, worshipped. A service for Lauren Bessette will be held Saturday evening in the sisters' home town of Greenwich, Conn.
There also will be a public memorial service at 6 p.m. Thursday at the old St. Patrick's Cathedral in lower Manhattan.
The families were trying to resolve differences about burial plans, a source said. A senior administration official said that Kennedy would be buried at sea as early as Thursday but that plans for his wife and sister-in-law were uncertain. A Navy ship had been positioned for the sea burial, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.
In Hyannis, the discovery of the bodies seemed to slow most activity in the community the Kennedy family calls home.
Few magazines bearing the image of John F. Kennedy Jr. on their covers remained for sale at the News Shop, the quaint corner store where locals sip coffee on an outside bench and discuss the latest news.
Barbara Currier, 43, a long-time summer resident whose son assisted with the initial search, said she was glad the search has ended with the bodies recovered. "The unknown is almost worse than the known," she said.
Like others in this village, Currier considered the Kennedys part of her extended family and expressed deep admiration for the way they have handled one tragedy after another. "It touches you because it's right in our back yard," she said. "You have to say, `God bless them, they go on.' There's no guarantee for any of us."
Her daughter, Kendra, 13, said she looked up to the young Kennedy much as her mother had respected his father. "I wasn't born when JFK died, but now I know what people must have felt," she said.
The intense search for the plane's wreckage and the bodies was conducted meticulously over a 24-mile swath of at least 10 search grids that had been mapped out according to their potential as wreckage sites.
The stepped-up search this morning was aided by the USS Grasp's sophisticated diving and underwater endurance equipment, including a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to assist the divers. Side-looking sonar from another vessel also has been used.
Pinpointing the location of the wreckage had taken days in part because Kennedy, before taking off Friday, did not file a flight plan. In addition, aviation officials had to study radar records from a variety of sources to map the plane's movement and status at various points.
From that research, investigators determined that Kennedy lost control of the plane and that it plunged into the ocean in a 53 mph dive from which even experienced pilots could scarely recover.
Kennedy had been a licensed pilot for a little more than a year, making him relatively inexperienced despite his enthusiasm and his flights virtually every weekend. He took off from the Essex County airport in Fairfield, N.J., at 8:38 p.m. Friday on a night of hazy skies and reduced visibility.
Just what happened in the air will be pieced together by investigators as they put together the wreckage they are collecting in a hangar here at Otis Air National Guard Base. Until the recovery last night of the 8 to 10 feet of wreckage in which divers found the bodies, the collection of debris recovered so far included part of the plane's landing gear, a panel of the cabin interior's moulding, a headrest, a piece of luggage and a prescription bottle.
Investigators noted that after the plane began making a series of turns before its fatal plunge, it appeared to be under control, if perhaps acting erratically. The engine also appeared to be operating, because the plane remained relatively level until it began the plunge. Some pilots speculated that the plane could not have achieved a descent of more than 5,000 feet per minute unless it had power on the way down.
Investigators will closely examine the wreckage for the telltale tears, scrapes and other structural damage that would indicate whether the plane remained intact until it hit water.
Larrabee said the instrument panel is in the wreckage, offering a potential wealth of information on the plane's final moments and what Kennedy did with the controls in the moments before the crash.
Staff writer Don Phillips in Washington and special correspondent Pamela Ferdinand in Hyannis contributed to this report.
Navy divers raise bodies from the twisted wreckage.
* 11:30 p.m.: A remote-operated vehicle from the USS Grasp locates the fuselage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane at a depth of more than 110 feet.
* 6:30 a.m.: The Grasp is repositioned over the wreckage area.
* 10:30 a.m.: Navy divers find the bodies of Kennedy, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette.
* 4:30 p.m.: The bodies are brought to the surface.
* The main portion of the fuselage is recovered.
CAPTION: Sen. Edward Kennedy, right, and sons Edward Jr. and Patrick ride a Coast Guard vessel to the USS Grasp.