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The The Kennedy Crash: The Family - Clan was gathered for a wedding. Then came a chilling message

SO CONSUMING was the worry at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport on Saturday that nobody told the catering company hired to feed the 275 guests at the wedding of Rory Kennedy that the ceremony had been called off. Their vans arrived at three in the tense afternoon.

But by then, most of the rest of the world knew tragedy had returned to haunt America's most famous political dynasty as it had done so many times. Inside the compound, prayers were being said in desperate and fading hope for the life of the only son of the late President John F Kennedy. Within the walls of what the world came to know as Camelot - the Kennedy estate set in a picturesque town of clapperboard homes and rose hedges on the southern shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - the clan was struggling to absorb an almost unthinkable reality.

Thirty-six hours after the private Piper plane of JFK vanished from radar screens off the island of Martha's Vineyard, no trace of him, his wife, Carolyn Bessette, or her sister, Lauren Bessette, had been found. That JFK, his wife and her sister had been heading here for a wedding deepens the agony.

Rory Kennedy is a daughter of the late Robert Kennedy - her mother, Ethel, was pregnant with her when RFK was shot to death in California in 1968. Nineteen months ago she cradled her dying brother Michael in her arms after a skiing accident at Aspen Colorado. This weekend, her wedding was postponed because of the presumed death of her cousin. All the clan gathered here on Saturday for her marriage to Mark Bailey, a book and film critic from New York. Many guests were visiting the tiny John F Kennedy Museum on Main Street on Saturday, when Pearl Guba, its manager made a grim announcement. "They were preparing to go to the wedding, some of them from Ireland, and they were totally shocked when we told them," he said. "It's a good thing John's mother, Jackie, died first. She was so fond of her son."

By yesterday, many of the guests in the compound, a main beachside house and several small cottages, had slipped discreetly away, leaving a core of family members. They included Senator Edward Kennedy, 67, the only principal member of the Kennedy cast to make it past middle age. And there were three priests who had come to Cap Cod to bless the wedding vows. Just 19 months ago the same priests had attended the funeral of Michael Kennedy, JFK's cousin, killed in Aspen on New Year's Eve 1997.

On Saturday, a brief mass was said on the steps of the main house, overlooking a huge sweeping lawn, with 50 friends and family. In the streets of Hyannisport, yellow ribbons were wound round trees, tied by neighbours sharing in the grief and worry. "I think the family could use some hope," said Melissa Lewandowski, who put up one of the bows.

"If they saw a yellow ribbon, they would know that the community is hoping with them."

The people of Hyannisport still remember when the compound was an oasis of joy. In an earlier era, it was the gathering point for family members to summer parties and days by the sea. But these days, grief more often brings this clan together.

"It's so sad," said Janice Beechum, a local resident. "The only time everybody comes down here now is when there is a Kennedy tragedy."

For the many children brought along for the cancelled wedding the sombre mood was too hard to comprehend. At mid-afternoon on Saturday, a kite- flying party strayed on to the lawn. Later, RFK junior, another cousin of John's, was seen navigating a rocky breakwater on the beach with his small son on his shoulders.

"There's a lot of children running around, which always seems to change the atmosphere," said Brian O'Connor, a family spokesman. "People are happy to see one another."

Journalists and TV crews from around the world were once more pressed up against police fences on the streets from the compound yesterday, waiting for word from a family that has become so practised in dealing with loss. And the family are waiting for the US coastguard to say they had turned from search and rescue to accident investigation. Then the family will have to prepare for yet another journey into grief, and more funerals.