Fifty years ago, Sen. Ted Kennedy had lost two brothers to assassination and was heir to the Kennedy political fortune and was widely predicted to be the next Democratic nominee for president. Then came the July 18, 1969, car accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne was killed. This article ran on the front page of The Washington Post on July 20, 1969. Kennedy later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

A car driven by Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy plunged off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., about midnight Friday, killing Kennedy’s woman passenger.

She was identified by Kennedy as Mary Jo Kopechne of Washington, a 28-year-old campaign worker who was spending the weekend on nearby Martha’s Vineyard island.

The Senator was not physically injured in the accident. But his political career may have been gravely damaged.

Nearly nine hours went by before Kennedy — “exhausted and in a state of shock,” according to his statement — walked into police headquarters at Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to report what had happened.

From Kennedy’s statement to police and from other sources, this story emerged:

The Senator flew up to Martha’s Vineyard from Washington Friday to take part in the annual Edgartown sailing regatta, and to join his wife and family at Hyannis Port this weekend.

Miss Kopechne, once a secretary to the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, had gone up to Martha’s Vineyard the day before with five girl friends to spend a weekend at the beach.

After sailing in the regatta, Kennedy went to Chappaquiddick to spend the evening at a cottage with friends, whose identities have not been disclosed. Miss Kopechne was among those at the gathering.

Between 11 p.m. and midnight, Kennedy left the cottage in his car to return to his room at the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown.

Miss Kopechne, who was staying at another hotel at Edgartown, rode with him.

As Kennedy approached the road leading to the ferry that connects Chappaquiddick Island with Martha’s Vineyard, he made a wrong turn. After driving about a half-mile he came to a small bridge that spans an inlet. The bridge is only 10½ feet wide, has no railings, and is used primarily by fishermen traveling in jeeps and beach buggies.

The car went off the bridge and, according to Kennedy’s statement to police, “turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom.”

“I attempted to open the door and window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car,” he reported.

“I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt. I was exhausted and in a state of shock.”

Walks to Cottage

After abandoning his efforts to rescue Miss Kopechne, the Senator said he walked to the cottage where he had spent the evening. His friends, he said, were having dinner, and he got into the back seat of a car parked at the cottage.

Later, one of his friends drove him back to Edgartown, where Kennedy recalled “walking around for a period of time and then going back to my hotel room.”

At about 8:20 a.m., Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena got a call from Mrs. Pierre Maulm, whose house on Chappaquiddick is about 100 yards from the accident scene. She reported an overturned car in the water, submerged except for the wheels.

Chief Arena said he drove immediately to the accident scene, put on a bathing suit and dived in search of victims. He found nothing and later remarked:

“The Senator said he was exhausted and I can see why. There is a very heavy tide. I was pooped by the time I got to the car.”

Arena left the water and called on his car radio for a professional scuba diver. At about this time — roughly 9 a.m. — he was informed that Senator Kennedy was at police headquarters.

Arena returned there and obtained a statement from the Senator. Kennedy, he said, was “very cooperative” and remained at the police station until noon, when he flew by chartered plane to his family’s compound at Hyannis Port.

Cause of Death

Miss Kopechne’s body was recovered from the car by diver John Farrar of Edgartown, assisted by Arena.

The medical examiner at Edgartown, Dr. Donald Mills, said the cause of death was drowning. She was dressed in a white blouse and black slacks.

Several aspects of the incident remained unexplained last night. There was no explanation, for example, of the nine-hour lapse between the time the accident occurred and Kennedy’s first contact with police.

The ferry between Chappaquiddick and Martha’s Vineyard closes at midnight and open at 7:30 a.m. But there is a telephone service between the two islands (they are only a few hundred yards apart) and it is not difficult, according to residents, to make the trip by private boat.

It is also uncertain from Kennedy’s statement and from police reports at what time Kennedy returned to Martha’s Vineyard or how long he remained at his hotel until going to police headquarters.

How long the Senator had know Miss Kopechne is likewise not known.

Friends said she graduated in 1962 from Caldwell College in Caldwell, N.J., and came to Washington as a secretary in office of former Sen. George Smathers of Florida in 1964 or 1965, they said, and went to work as a secretary in the office of Robert Kennedy and worked in his presidential campaign last year until his death. In recent months she has worked for a Washington political consultant, Matt Reese, who was also associated with the Robert Kennedy campaign.

She lived with several friends in a Georgetown row house at 2912 Olive St. NW. One of her roommates, Margaret Carroll, said Miss Kopechne’s circle of friends included a number of people on Edward Kennedy’s staff.

The Senator personally notified Miss Kopechne’s family of the accident yesterday morning.

In Seclusion

After leaving Martha’s Vineyard, he remained in seclusion at his Hyannis Port home yesterday. Other than the formal statement to Chief Arena, he made no public statements about the accident, nor did members of his staff.

When he appeared at the police station yesterday, he was accompanied by a lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Paul Markham, and by a cousin, Joseph Gargan.

Chief Arena said no charges were placed against the Senator and gave no indication that any were contemplated. There was no evidence of speeding by Kennedy, he said, adding that he considered the incident as “strictly a motor vehicle accident.”

Arena said he had questioned Kennedy about the accident and “I was satisfied with his answers.” But the matter, he said, was “still under investigation as far as failing to report the accident is concerned.”

No Explanation

The chief said he had no explanation for Kennedy’s delay in reporting the accident except that “the Senator did give a statement . . . in which he did say he was exhausted and in a state of shock after the accident.” He speculated that Kennedy had not even reported the accident to the friends who finally took him from Chappaquiddick to Martha’s Vineyard.

Arena said that when he first learned, early yesterday morning, that Kennedy’s car was involved in the accident, he said to himself, “My God, another Kennedy.”

In 1964, Kennedy suffered a broken back in an airplane crash in Massachusetts. A year earlier, his brother, President John Kennedy, was assassinated. A year ago his other brother, Robert, was also assassinated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date for the accident. It was July 18. 1969.

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