Rear Adm. Evelyn Fields’ assumption of command ceremony
in the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard July 27, Lt. Cdr. James S.
Verlaque, NOAA, and Lt. Cdr. Gerd Glang, NOAA, members of the
team that located the wreckage of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s,
downed Piper Saratoga, recalled the rush of events that came
to dominate their lives and the consciousness of the nation
just one week earlier.
When he heard the news that John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, Piper
Saratoga was missing and feared down off Martha’s Vineyard
on Saturday morning, July 17, Lt. Cdr. James S. Verlaque, commanding
officer of the NOAA Ship Rude, was in port on Long
Rude’s specialty is precisely locating and
charting objects on the sea floor that might be obstructions
or hazards to navigation, Verlaque knew his ship could help.
He immediately notified the Coast Guard that Rude
was available for assistance.
Verlaque then began rounding up the members of his crew
who had the weekend off.
were all out. Some were looking for fuel. Others were golfing.
Some were hiking,” Verlaque said.
60-mile trip to the waters off Martha’s Vineyard took
about five hours. They arrived at dusk.
search for the missing Piper was underway, television stations
preempted their regular broadcasts for coverage of the apparent
crash, and the nation stood transfixed.
Little Ship That Could
Exactly three years earlier, Rude had located the wreckage
of TWA Flight 800 that crashed off Long Island. And now
the ship was back in the national spotlight.
90 feet in length, Rude is one of the smallest vessels
in the NOAA Fleet, highly maneuverable and the perfect size
for operating in busy, near-shore waters.
it’s one of the older vessels, Rude is equipped
with both a modern multibeam sonar attached to one side
of the ship, called SEABAT, and a side scan sonar, a three-foot-long
“fish” that is towed behind the ship. In the
hands of its highly skilled and experienced crew, the ship
is a most powerful survey tool.
did a surface search first,” Verlaque said, “and
about 45 minutes thereafter we started 24-hour sonar operations.”
remained on station all night.
authorities and the nation began to fear the worst, that
there might be no survivors to find, only wreckage.
Sunday afternoon, Robert Hancock, an inspector with the
National Transportation Safety Board, came aboard Rude.
provided insights into flight aerodynamics, the size of
the Piper, what he suspected the Piper looked like and,
based on the one radar position (they had at the time),
how he suspected it was heading and its location,”
where to start surveying?
Verlaque and his executive officer, Lt. Eric Berkowitz,
had already looked over the charts and determined a grid
for “mowing the lawn,” running the ship on a
precise, straight line course while surveying with sonar,
then returning on a parallel course, close enough to the
previous line so that the paths surveyed overlap and there
is total coverage of the bottom.
were going with a guess,” Verlaque said. It was a
great guess, but just off the mark. Ironically, Verlaque
said, “had we started 250 meters further north, we
would have located the wreck within an hour or two.”
most of the day, they ran lines of hydrography off Martha’s
Vineyard in a four- by six-mile grid, dodging lobster pot
buoys as they steamed along at four to five knots: six miles
east, then turn around and come back six miles west. On
each pass, the ship scanned an area about 200 meters wide,
roughly the area of two football fields.
was not unusual for the crew to run 24-hour survey operations.
“Everybody knew their post. Every- body knew what
their operation was,” Verlaque said. And everybody
gave a special effort.
“We were trying to find closure for the families.
They were obviously grieving, and wanted a resolution. So
everybody was geared up—myself and the crew—in
a ‘find it, find it’ mode,” Verlaque said.
“There was not much time to think about anything except
locating the site.”
this point, Verlaque and his XO were actually working 20
hours on, four hours off, and staying in touch with the
rest of the search team by cell phone. The work continued
morning, the searchers switched to secure VHF hand-held
radios because their cell phone calls were being intercepted.
At mid-day, Rude dropped marker buoys on four sonar
targets that looked promising. Shortly thereafter, Rude
received new information from the NTSB—the locations
of the Piper’s last four radar positions.
returned to the area where it earlier had spotted suspicious
targets, shifted from a rectangular grid to a two-mile-square
grid and redoubled its earlier efforts.
the meantime at 11 a.m., the NOAA Ship Whiting
arrived on the scene, having steamed all night from Delaware
Bay. Whiting’s commanding officer, Lt. Cdr. Gerd Glang,
said he “drew a straight line from Delaware Bay up
to Martha’s Vineyard,” making about 12 knots
for most of the 24-hour trip.
much larger, 163-foot Whiting is equipped with
the latest, most sophisticated side scan sonar available,
which had only recently been installed on the ship during
its last inport at the Atlantic Marine Center in Norfolk,
new survey fish on Whiting, a Klein T5500, is the
next generation of Rude’s side scan sonar,
what Glang and his fellow hydrographers call a “high-speed,
high-resolution side scan sonar.”
transducers are longer and they can actually form multiple
beams, up to five beams,” Glang said. “And they’re
narrower beams, so they’re more focused, so I get
the higher resolution. But I also get the higher firing
rate, so I can pull the fish through the water faster,”
up to a maximum of about seven and a half knots, he said.
about 1:30 in the afternoon, Glang called Verlaque aboard
Rude. “Well, we’re on the search. We’re
starting our box,” he said, having already gotten
the coordinates to investigate from the Unified Command
Center at Otis Air Force Base.
Whiting began surveying in 80 to 100 feet of water, in
near-zero visibility because of lingering fog.
about 3:30 p.m., Rude’s crew, still towing
the side scan sonar fish, located what they called a “highly
suspect, level 10 target.” They tagged it “R-01”
because it was the first target investigated. Level 10 is
the highest confidence level.
XO was actually operating the sonar and I could tell he
had seen something unusual,” Verlaque said. “He
became tense, more than normally. I also looked at the sonar
screen and it was apparent that we saw something that was
different than the normal terrain there,” he said.
were literally thousands of rocks and boulders in the grid
we surveyed,” Verlaque said. But what they saw on
the screen was definitely not a boulder.
ship radioed Romeo Zero One’s position to the
USS Grasp, now on the scene with a remotely operated
vehicle and divers.
given up surveying among the lobster pots, Whiting joined
Rude in its search area.
came in right behind him and surveyed over the same area,
where the contact that eventually proved to be the aircraft
was located,” Glang said.
Whiting’s newer generation tow fish, “we
could see something that looked like it didn’t belong
there. It wasn’t natural,” he said.
midnight Tuesday, the Navy confirmed to Verlaque that Romeo
Zero One was indeed the site of the Piper wreckage. In fact,
the chain anchor of Rude’s marker buoy had
landed on the plane’s fuselage.
the rest of the night, Rude resumed surveying in
the vicinity of the Piper wreckage.
next day, Wednesday, their survey work now complete, Rude
and Whiting helped the Coast Guard maintain a security
a visit from Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee and
NTSB Chairman James Hall, Rude and Whiting
received their orders: “stand down from operations."
which was still operating non-stop, departed the scene near
dusk, almost exactly 96 hours after it arrived.
we were released from the scene, we transited for Montauk
and stopped at Block Island because the crew was fatigued,”
Verlaque said with typical understatement.
prepared Whiting and its crew to travel to Rear Admiral
Evelyn Fields’ assumption of command ceremony in the
Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.
for the two ships it was back to mowing the lawn in Delaware
Bay and Block Island Sound, and back out of the spotlight
until the next time.
On July 30, the U.S. Coast Guard bestowed commendations
on the officers and crews of Rude and Whiting and other uniformed
and civilian members of the search and recovery team “for
exceptionally meritorious service from 17 July 1999 to 23 July
1999 in the search and recovery of the downed aircraft carrying
John F. Kennedy, Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and
her sister Lauren Bessette. Members of the Unified Command distinguished
themselves during this complex operation with their professional
expertise and poise.”