The day the world showed up

Remembering what it was like when J.F.K. Jr.'s plane crashed.

A rather large media contingent showed up for press briefings after JFK Jr.'s plane crashed. - MVTimes file photo

At around 9 o’clock on the night of July 16, 1999, my son Spike and I left Tashmoo to bring our 30-foot sloop, Morning Star, around to Vineyard Haven. It was a clear night with very little moon, and the wind was brisk out of the southwest. As we rounded West Chop, under jib alone, we were unaware that John Kennedy Jr.’s single-engine Piper Saratoga was going down some 10 miles away off the coast of Cuttyhunk.

The next morning, Spike left our house at sunrise to join his friend Sloane and his dad on a trip out to Nomans for some fishing, and maybe even a little exploring. Nomans is a small deserted island off the southwest end of the Vineyard that for years was used as a bombing range by the Navy. Even though the bombing had been discontinued and the previous summer had been spent trying to clear out any leftover ordnance, the island was still technically off limits. But the guys figured that if the conditions were right, they could sneak ashore and do a little poking around; supposedly the landscape was remarkable and the birding extraordinary.

They set out from Quitsa Pond, left Menemsha Harbor behind them, and rounded the Cliffs of Gay Head. Normally, at this time of day you’d expect to see a few other fishing boats trolling in these waters, but as they headed out for the back side of Nomans, they soon realized that this was anything but a normal day. Appearing from every direction were Coast Guard vessels, police boats, helicopters, and news crews. Not a good day to be sneaking off anywhere. Of course, at that point they had no idea there had been a plane crash.

To have heard the nonstop news coverage coming from the Island over the next few days, one would assume you couldn’t even go to the store without pushing your way through throngs of reporters, but that wasn’t really my experience at all. For the most part, all the press was concentrated up around Menemsha, where the search and rescue operations were based. It wasn’t until I came back from Boston later that week that I got a feeling for the enormity of the situation.

That afternoon the Kennedy family had gone out to sea for a service on a naval vessel, and the ship was just returning, with its attendant flotilla, as I drove into Woods Hole. But what was even more dramatic than a battleship steaming through Vineyard Sound was the forest of portable satellite dishes on the hill by the Coast Guard cove overlooking the sound. News teams from all over the world, packed in bumper-to-bumper, elbow-to-elbow, each sending off the exact same footage to millions of hungry eyes.

I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live your life under such a microscope. I also couldn’t help but compare this scene to a memorial service of a different nature that was held a couple of years before on these same waters. The afternoon when we spread Dad’s ashes onto the quiet waters of Tashmoo from the back of our little sailboat, Netcher. There were no Eyewitness News teams on hand. No 21-gun salute from the deck of a warship. No fleet of rubberneckers, no nation of mourners glued to their television sets.

I can’t imagine.

I can’t even begin to imagine.


From “Washashore — Scenes From the Life of a Martha’s Vineyard Transplant,” by Geoff Currier, a yet-to-be-published book.