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The Kennedy Crash: Grief and disbelief as US mourns strange death of its favourite son

SQUARE-JAWED in his state ranger's hat, Captain Robert Bird was still not ready to concede what the rest of America had already, reluctantly, concluded - that 36 hours after it vanished from radar screens 19 miles off Martha's Vineyard, the small Piper plane belonging to John F Kennedy Jnr was unlikely to surrender any survivors. "This is still classified as a search and rescue operation," he said without emotion.

Technically, there was still room for hope yesterday as investigators homed in on an emergency transmission that they heard in the waters off Martha's Vineyard. They were still searching for the spot late last night. And it is true that in the summer months, someone from that plane - JFK Jnr himself, his wife Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren Bessette - might still have been breathing in those Atlantic waters, but common sense, and the belongings that had already washed up on a beach of fine sand on the island's westernmost edge, told a different tale. JFK Jnr was surely dead.

Thus, disbelief and grief have struck this land as it takes its summer holidays - just as it did Britain when the Princess of Wales died in August 1997. JFK Jnr was not royalty, but he was surely a prince. The only son of the late president John F Kennedy, he was also America's favourite son, ever since he was pictured as a three-year-old saluting his father's coffin: impossibly good looking, very rich and a perennial of gossip headlines and magazine covers.

Even his death - apparent death - was more poignant and more strange than the most fertile of tabloid imaginations could have mustered. He and the beautiful wife he married in 1996 were heading for Massachusetts for a wedding at the place where the American version of Camelot was born - the Kennedy Compound at Hyannisport on Cape Cod. To be wed was Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F Kennedy: just 19 months ago she watched her brother, Michael, die on the ski slope in Aspen.

As everyone on Martha's Vineyard wanted to remind you, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the incident on Chappaquiddick that spawned the first Kennedy scandal, when a car driven by Edward Kennedy plunged off a bridge killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. This is no ordinary curse that the Kennedys are suffering, it is a curse with a gruesome sense of historical neatness.

Just after lunchtime on Saturday the belongings were found - a canvas suitcase bearing the Morgan Stanley business card of Lauren, a cosmetic bag, a prescription bottle with the name Carolyn Bessette on the label, and a plane seat, a piece of a strut and the rubber covering from a pedal. They all washed up on Philbins Beach - less than two miles from the Martha's Vineyard house that JFK Jnr inherited from his mother, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, after she died in 1994.

The bag was what they spotted first. Damon Seligson, 30, from Boston swam out to fetch it. "We were standing on the beach, enjoying the day - a bunch of us were watching the waves and saw what looked like luggage floating in the water," he said. Aware that the plane had gone missing, he feared the worst. "My heart was pounding. I almost passed out."

When he retrieved it, the bag was wet but intact, Lauren's business card still inserted in a sewn-on pocket. "We opened it to peek in and saw women's clothing, a make-up bag and hair dryer. It was a terrible sinking feeling. I felt my heart burst out of my chest."

Yesterday it emerged that as recently as a week ago JFK Jnr did not feel comfortable flying without a co-pilot. He had broken his ankle in a paragliding accident and was having trouble with the pedals. JFK Jnr gained his pilot's licence in April last year, but is thought to have flown for as few as 46 hours. It emerged that he had waited to take flying lessons until after his mother's death because she was terrified of losing him in an accident.

The search for the bodies concentrated on an area of ocean between the western shore of the Vineyard and tiny No Man's Island 3.5 miles away. Taking part were ships and aircraft of the US Coast Guard and the civil air patrol. Above circled a US Air Force C-130 acting as an air traffic control centre.

But this is a large expanse of water hiding a small plane that may have broken into a thousand pieces. And although the sandy seabed is only about 300 feet deep - not too far for divers to venture - there are areas of large boulder fields that could shield any wreckage. And there is something else few wanted to talk about yesterday: these are waters favoured during the summer by sharks.

All the while, across just 20 miles of water at Hyannisport on Cape Cod, the Kennedy family can only wait, the world's press thronging a few yards from the compound's entrance.

The weekend that was meant to be one of joy for a young couple had not just been ruined, it had become a rehearsal for a labour the family knows too well - the labour of tragic loss. Most of the guests were gone by yesterday, leaving behind only members of the family and a billowing but empty white marquee.