As a reporter I have met Presidents and interviewed rock stars, covered plane crashes and seen people drop in front of me at the wrong end of a bullet. It makes for an interesting life but few stories tug at the heart strings after so many years in the business and few stories leave you remembering exactly where you were the moment the story broke. One that stands out is where I was at 3am (yes, that’s right, the glamorous life of morning drive time) on July 17, 1999. I had just gotten out of bed and turned on the radio to see what I would be dealing with by the time I made it in for my 4:30am shift. Usually on a summer Sunday morning, the most you can hope for, even in a city like New York, is maybe a heat-related riot or gang bang. Yet, this morning there was a hush over the city because one of its favorite sons was missing.
John John’s plane had gone down off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and had not been heard from since about 11pm Saturday night. The story was just breaking as I was starting my day. I jumped in the car and began tearing down the West Side Highway, as if by the time I made it into the studio the story would have a happy ending and John F. Kennedy Jr. would be found alive. I knew in my heart that it would not be a good day no matter what.
The newspapers weren’t going to break this story and Twitter wasn’t around yet; so it would be us, the radio and TV broadcasters who would have to tell New Yorkers, who would have to tell the country that the Prince of Camelot was gone. It’s now 5am on a Sunday morning, whom do I call first? The producer wants sound and he wants it now? Well, it’s 2am in Seattle, can I get an aviation expert from Boeing on to talk about the difference between visual flight rules and an “instruments only” flight? (John was not certified for instruments only) Can I get a search and rescue expert on to talk about side scan sonar and how the search and rescue might proceed? Yes, daylight is peering over the horizon and this is still a search and rescue mission. Who can we get out to Essex Airport where Kennedy took off from? Ahhhh, but this is New York. Who can we get on the air who actually knows John? By 9am I am placing a call that I am not looking forward to – the call to John’s longtime nanny Marta Sgubin. Whew, thank God, her answering machine picks up and I can tell the producer that at least I left a message. What do you say to someone who has known John so personally for 30 years? It’s not easy for reporters on a story like this, on a story where John was every girl’s fantasy and every boy’s friend next door. This shouldn’t happen to JFK Jr.
Then, a day or two later, luggage washed ashore belonging to John’s sister-in-law. Search and rescue had become search and recovery. It was several days before we knew for sure, before the reality hit home that no one would be running into John at the gym, or at the Met, or in Central Park. John, his wife Carolyn and his sister-in-law Lauren were gone.
I worked a 14 hour shift that day because the execs came in and didn’t trust the tape studio to the desk assistant who hadn’t even read a newspaper by noon. They begged me to stay on and I agreed as long as I could still see straight. It was late in the afternoon when I finally left the station. I was numb as I exited onto Sixth Avenue. The sun was out but a pall had been cast over Manhattan. The Prince had left Camelot without a chance for good-bye!