EDGARTOWN, MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. -- A car with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., at the wheel plunged off a bridge into a pond early today, killing the pretty blonde secretary who was riding with the senator.
Kennedy, apparently in shock, escaped from the overturned car but was unable to rescue his companion, Police Chief James Arena said. He found a ride from the tiny offshore island where the accident occurred back to this community on Martha's Vineyard and wandered in shock for a time before reporting the accident, Arena said.
The dead woman was identified as Miss Mary Jo Kopechne, 29, of Washington, who had worked as a secretary for the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Arena said Kennedy, the Senate Whip, had made a statement about the accident and it was under investigation. "I really believe that the accident is strictly accidental," the police chief said. "As far as the circumstances surrounding it, there doesn't appear from the principal evidence to be any excessive speed there."
The 38-year-old Kennedy apparently escaped serious injury. It was the second serious accident in which he was involved and another in a series of tragedies which have struck the Kennedy family. In 1964, the Massachusetts senator was seriously injured in the crash of a light plane.
"Ted" Kennedy is the only surviving son of multimillionaire financier Joseph P. Kennedy. Two brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, were shot by assassins and a third, Joseph Kennedy Jr., died in world War II.
Kennedy, who had come to this Cape Cod resort island to watch the Edgartown Regatta, returned to the family compound at Hyannis Port in early afternoon and went into seclusion. He was expected to hold a scheduled news conference there.
Arena said Kennedy told him he was unfamiliar with the road on which the accident occurred. The police chief said the car went off a narrow wooden bridge used mostly by pedestrians. He quoted Kennedy as saying:
"The car turned aver and sunk in the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom and I attempted to open the door and window of the car but had no recollection of how I got out of the car.
"I came to the surface and repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt. I was exhausted and in a state of shock and I recall that I was able to get back to some friends who had a car parked in front of a cottage. I asked someone to bring me back to Edgartown.
"I remember walking around for a period of time and when I suddenly realized what happened I immediately contacted the police."
Arena said he believed the senator was "shook up over it and in a state of shock and evidentally he was so much in a state of shock that he didn't tell the people that he came over here with" about Miss Kopechne.
The woman's body was recovered from about 6 feet of water in the pond on Chappaquiddick.
Kennedy and his wife Joan, have two children.
Richard C. Drayne, Kennedy's press secretary, said in Washington there would be no statement made by Kennedy at the Hyannis Port family compound, where 'the senator returned after the accident.
Miss Kopechne was listed in a 1968 directory as legislative secretary to Robert Kennedy. Drayne said she worked in Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign last year.
The senator's back was broken and the pilot and a Kennedy aide, Edward Moss of Andover, were killed when their light plane crashed in an apple orchard near Southampton as they flew to the Massachusetts Democratic convention on June 19, 1964.
Kennedy spent five months in a Massachusetts hospital and still wears a brace. The injury has forced him to sit out many of the sports at which he once excelled.