The Mysteries of Chappaquiddick

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Popperfoto / Getty

Divers try to raise the car belonging to Senator Edward Kennedy in which he was seriously injured and his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne was killed, at the Chappaquiddick Bridge.

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Was Kennedy Drunk?
According to his television statement, he was "not driving under the influence of liquor" and, says Esther Newberg, "it was a steak cookout, not a Roman orgy. No one was drinking heavily." Still, it is unlikely that Kennedy abstained entirely—he never said that he did—and the lack of a blood or breath test afterward can only arouse suspicion, justified or not. Kennedy has been drinking more heavily since his brother was murdered last year, but he is far from being a drunkard. He has been quite sober at several parties where liquor flowed freely, and a TIME correspondent who has watched him for months has seen him drunk only once. And that was on an airplane coming back from his celebrated trip to Alaska last winter. There is, in short, no proof either way.

How Did the Accident Happen?
Leaving the cottage in his black 1967 Oldsmobile, Kennedy was almost at once brought up against a T-junction. If he had turned left, he would have continued along the paved Chappaquiddick Road leading toward the ferry crossing. But he turned his car right onto a dirt road leading to the wooden bridge and to the beach beyond. In his first statement to police, Kennedy explained that he had simply made a wrong turn, heading to the right. That meant he would have had to overlook a reflector arrow pointing the way to the ferry, and longtime residents say that all of the Kennedy brothers knew—or should have known—the area very well. The question arises: Could the Senator have traveled six-tenths of a mile down an unpaved road without knowing that he was on the wrong course? Or was he knowingly heading for the beach?

The bridge, once reached, is demonstrably dangerous night or day, and someone was bound to go off it sooner or later. A narrow (10 ft. 6 in.) structure without guard rails, it meets the road obliquely, so that if a driver goes onto the bridge at exactly the same angle he has been traveling, he will automatically wind up in the water. Kennedy's car, in fact, got only 18 feet onto the bridge before plunging into the pond. Locals recommend stopping altogether before leaving the road, then inching forward at 5 m.p.h. Kennedy informed the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which suspended his license last week pending its own administrative investigation, that he had been going 20 m.p.h. There is no tangible evidence to dispute his figure, and there were no skid marks to indicate that Kennedy had braked the car or had even been aware that he was in danger. It is known, however, that some members of Kennedy's entourage refuse to ride with him because he is such a daredevil driver, and Kennedy incurred four traffic convictions in the '50s, two for speeding and two for reckless driving.

How Did He Escape?
Describing the climactic moment on television, Kennedy said that he had no idea at all of how he got free of the car, which overturned in the tidal water. "I remember thinking, as the cold water rushed in around my head," he said "that I was for certain drowning. Then water entered my lungs, and I actually felt the sensation of drowning. But somehow I struggled to the surface alive. I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm."

Encumbered with a back brace from his 1964 airplane crash, Kennedy must have found it difficult to dive into the water, and the question is how strenuously he really tried. The tidal current was running at 1½ knots. Considering the physical circumstances, and Kennedy's description of his condition, there is some doubt as to how much credibility this part of his story carries. When the car was brought to the surface the next morning, a purse belonging to Rosemary Keough, Edward Kennedy's secretary, was found. This led to all kinds of speculation that Miss Keough might have been in the car along with Mary Jo. In fact, she had used the car earlier in the day to pick up a radio for the party and had forgotten the pocketbook in the automobile.

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