Kennedy alarm delayed for hours after control tower was ignored

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THE CONTROL tower official at Martha's Vineyard airport tried to raise the alarm over John F Kennedy Jnr's missing aircraft at about the time it was due to land last Friday evening, but the phone-call warning to a Federal Aviation Administration control centre went unheeded.

Adam Budd, an airport employee, made the call at around 10pm. Preparations for the search and rescue operation that scoured the seas here at the weekend began four hours later, after a friend of the Kennedys phoned the Coast Guard about the missing plane.

But there is no certainty that starting the search four hours earlier would have made a difference. Latest radar information shows that the Piper, bearing Mr Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette, lost altitude over the water at 4,700 feet a minute, or roughly 50 miles an hour, 10 times the normal descent rate.

The radar data, timed at 9.40pm, appeared to suggest the plane went into a catastrophic and possibly spiralling dive and hit the ocean at enormous speed. The impact may have caused the aircraft to disintegrate. That could explain why small pieces continue to wash up on nearby beaches, and why search vessels yesterday were still having difficulty locating wreckage. The information also implies everyone on the plane would have died instantly. "That's absolutely not survivable," said Bruce Landsbergh, head of the Air Safety Foundation in Virginia.

There was still no word yesterday on any funeral or memorial arrangements for Mr Kennedy or his passengers. The White House quashed rumours that any remains that may still be found of JFK would be buried in the Arlington National Cemetary beside his father, the late President, and his mother, Jackie. No request for permission to lay him to rest at the site had been received from the family, a spokesman said.

In another poignant twist, sources said yesterday that a plastic folder containing the registration documents of Mr Kennedy's plane had washed up during the weekend on a beach beneath a holiday home he inherited from his mother, on the western shore of Martha's Vineyard.

The brief conversation between Mr Budd and an official at the FAA control centre in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was recorded in a verbatim transcript obtained by The Boston Globe. Mr Budd asked for information the centre might have about the missing plane. But it is clear the person at the FAA was disinclined to take the call seriously. Mr Budd asked if the centre might have tracked the plane, and added: "Actually, Kennedy Jr's on board. He's uh, they wanna know, uh, where he is". But he quickly becomes apologetic and fails to press harder. The FAA employee said: "Well, we don't give this information out to people over the phone." Mr Budd replied: "OK, well, if it's too much trouble, it's... " paused and said: "Take it easy." Then he hung up.

Thirty Navy and police divers are checking possible debris fields off the island, which had been identified by sonar on the ocean survey ship, the Rude. A US Navy vessel, the Grasp, is near, with heavy-lift cranes capable of taking aboard any large pieces of the plane.