The rescue mission is over.

Coast Guard officials said for the first time tonight that John F. Kennedy Jr. was likely dead from a small plane crash near Martha's Vineyard. The celebrity scion and magazine editor was 38. His aircraft, still not located, had been missing for two days.

Also presumed perished aboard Kennedy's private plane: his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, 34, an investment banker.

"I have spent some very painful moments with the families tonight," Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard M. Larrabee told reporters. "I think they understand. They have been very appreciative of what we have been trying to do."

Hope, already faint, seemed to all but extinguish with the Coast Guard reclassifying its massive effort as a "recovery" mission--downgraded from a "search-and-rescue" mission.

The missing trio was last seen Friday night. A Piper Saratoga, with Kennedy at the controls and the Bessette women in the passenger seats, took off from Caldwell, New Jersey, at about 8:45 p.m. (ET) Friday, en route for the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport with a stop at the tony climes of Martha's Vineyard in between. The first leg of the journey was to have taken an hour-and-a-half.

The plane never arrived.

Saturday, debris from the aircraft--including luggage, a prescription bottle, a seat headrest and carpeting--washed ashore near Martha's Vineyard. The luggage bore the name tag of Kennedy's sister-in-law. The prescription bottle, the name of his wife.

Last contact between the single-engine plane and air-traffic officials came during a radar sweep at 9:38 p.m. on Friday. At the time, the plane was in final descent, about 20 miles west of the Martha's Vineyard airport. Weather conditions were said to be hazy.

The plane officially was reported missing at about 2 a.m. Saturday.

This weekend a makeshift shrine was established by neighbors and well-wishers outside the Manhattan apartment kept by Kennedy and his wife. Lauren Bessette also lived in New York City.

John F. Kennedy Jr. received his pilot's license in 1998. For months, the New York tabs had run gossip items about how Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, was queasy about her husband's new hobby. But recent items said she'd come around--and even agreed to fly with him.

Kennedy and his wife had planned to attend the Saturday wedding of Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In the wake of events, those nuptials were postponed--with the clan opting to hold a mass instead.

Kennedy's death is the latest mishap to strike the star-crossed political clan. Today, in fact, is the 30th anniversary of the infamous incident known simply as Chappaquiddick.

It was on July 18, 1969, at Chappaquiddick, not far from Martha's Vineyard, that Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, JFK Jr.'s uncle, drove his car off a bridge and into the water. The crash killed passenger Mary Jo Kopechne and likely doomed the presidential aspirations of the lawmaker.

Like his nephew, Ted Kennedy also had a flying mishap. On June 19, 1964, a small plane carrying the young senator crashed in Massachusetts. The accident killed two, but the elder Kennedy survived--albeit with a broken back.

John F. Kennedy Jr. was the only son of the late President John F. Kennedy and the late Jacqueline Onassis.

With a martyred leader for a father and the most famous woman in the world for a mother, "John-John's" life was documented in minute detail from his days in short pants. His brave-little-boy salute at the funeral of his father in 1963 is one of the most indelible images of the century.

Owing to his own celebrity and his own movie-star good looks, he once was declared the "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine and dated the likes of Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daryl Hannah.

Kennedy wed Bessette, a former publicist for designer Calvin Klein, in 1996. He was the editor-in-chief and president of the Hollywood-friendly political magazine, George.

(ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/17/99 at 6:55 a.m. PT)

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