The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999. Along with JFK Jr, his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren also died.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 15, 2021. It has since been updated.
John F. Kennedy Jr. used to be considered American royalty but unfortunately, this bright star went out too early. He was only 38 when he died in a plane crash. He piloted the ill-fated aircraft. Along with him, his wife Carolyn Bessette, 33, and her sister, Lauren, 34, also died. The plane had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999. His death was among the many tragedies the Kennedy family has faced, including his father's assassination. The Piper Saratoga plane that he was flying to his cousin Rory's wedding disappeared into thin air. Their bodies were found by U.S. Navy divers from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on July 21, as per ABC.
"It was earth-shattering," his personal assistant and ABC News consultant RoseMarie Terenzio said. "It was unbelievable. It was as [if] the earth had cracked in half somehow. And I could not understand how this could happen. To him of all people," she added.
Before the crash, JFK Jr.'s life was going through some major changes. The magazine, George, that he launched in 1995 was expected to lose nearly $10 million in 1999, according to The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years by Edward Klein. Michael Berman, a co-founder of the publication, had left the business, and publisher Hachette was reportedly losing interest. So, the 38-year-old had been looking for other sources to finance it.
In early May 1999, George hosted a table at the White House Correspondents Dinner. "It was magical," George staffer Terenzio said of that night, according to Town & Country. "John was very much ready to make a splash with George. He was proud of it and thought,' This is the time, this is the place, and we belong here.' We just had a great time. Carolyn really was proud of John, and she was happy to be there to support him. She talked to everyone at the table and everyone at the next table. She went around to everyone on the staff and said hello."
What was probably not visible to Terenzio was that their marriage was on the edge too. The magazine had reportedly become a point of contention between the couple, as per Biography. While JFK Jr. focused on his work, he had left Bessette to fend for herself against the media frenzy.
"She couldn’t take it," recalled Kathy McKeon in her book Jackie’s Girl: My Life With the Kennedy Family. "She wasn’t brought up with it. John was, Carolyn wasn’t… She said, 'I’m terrified of them,'" wrote McKeon.
They got married in 1996 and JFK Jr. was ready for children but Bessette was unwilling, said author Klein. "I hate living in a fishbowl," Bessette had reportedly told a friend. "John may be comfortable living like this, but I’m not. How could I bring a child into this kind of world?" she added.
On July 14, Bessette's sister had reportedly organized a lunch to help the couple reconcile after they started living apart. They reconciled over the phone on the morning of the tragic incident, as per American Legacy: The Story of John & Caroline Kennedy, written by C. David Heymann.
The 38-year-old had visited his orthopedic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital on July 15 to have his cast removed from his ankle. He had been in a paragliding accident. However, his ankle was still tender and he needed to use crutches after the cast was removed. Lauren had suggested that he fly them to his cousin's wedding. They planned to fly to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, via a stop at Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Lauren.
Kennedy and Lauren left for the Essex County Airport in New Jersey after 6.30 p.m. and Bessette arrived separately, around 8 p.m. The Federal Aviation Administration cleared the plane for takeoff at 8:38 p.m. JFK Jr. had received his pilot’s license only a year ago and bought the plane only three months before flying it that fateful night. The Bessette sisters sat behind him. He had checked in with the control tower at Martha’s Vineyard, but when the plane failed to reach on time, it was reported missing.
The search for their bodies went on for five days and they were found on July 21. An autopsy revealed that the passengers of the plane died on impact. The cause of the crash was found to be the pilot's error. He had failed "to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze and the dark night," according to The National Transportation Safety Board.
Source: Getty Images | Photo by (L) Anne Sherwood (R) Diane Freed