Published: 1969
Play Audio Archive Story - UPI
The Chappaquiddick incident refers to the circumstances surrounding the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former staff member in Senator Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was driving a car with Kopechne as his passenger when the Senator drove off Dike Bridge into the channel between Chappaquiddick Island and Martha's Vineyard. The Senator swam to safety, but Kopechne died in the car. Kennedy pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a suspended sentence of two months in jail. The incident became a national scandal and may have affected the Senator's decision not to run for President in 1972. Ted Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island, adjoining Martha's Vineyard. The party was a reunion for campaign workers who had served in his brother Robert's 1968 presidential campaign. Kennedy drove away with party guest Mary Jo Kopechne as a passenger in his mother's 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88. According to Kennedy, he made a wrong turn onto an unlit dirt road that led to Dike Bridge (also spelled Dyke Bridge); a wooden bridge angled obliquely to the road with no guardrail, and drove over its side. The car plunged into tide-swept Poucha Pond (at that location a channel) and came to rest upside down underwater. Kennedy was able to swim free of the vehicle, but Kopechne was not. Kennedy claims he tried to swim down to reach her several times, then rested on the bank for several minutes before returning on foot to the Lawrence Cottage, where the party attended by Kopechne and other "Boiler Room Girls" had occurred. One of the "Boiler Room Girls" is now big-time New York literary agent Esther Newberg, who was Mary Jo's roommate for the weekend. Like everyone involved in the incident, Esther remains close-mouthed about what occurred. Joseph Gargan (Kennedy's cousin) and party co-host Paul Markham then returned to the pond with Kennedy to try to rescue Kopechne. Although there was a telephone at the Lawrence Cottage, nobody called for help. When their efforts to rescue Kopechne failed, Kennedy decided to return to his hotel. However, the Edgartown-Chappaquiddick ferry (which connects Chappaquiddick to the rest of the island) had shut down for the night. Kennedy swam across the 500-foot channel, back to Edgartown. The next morning, the police recovered Kennedy's car and the body of Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy discussed the accident with several people, including his lawyer and Kopechne's parents, before discussing it with the police the next morning. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning, and no autopsy was performed. Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He received a sentence of two months in jail, which was suspended. The sentence was notable in that the statute for the crime provided only for mandatory jail time and not the discretion of a suspended sentence. An Edgartown grand jury later reopened the investigation but did not return an indictment. The incident quickly became a scandal. Kennedy was criticized for failing to save Kopechne, for failing to summon help immediately, and for contacting not the police but rather his lawyer first. It is widely believed that the Chappaquiddick incident was the major factor in Kennedy's decision not to run for president in 1972. The case resulted in much satire of Kennedy. Rumors have circulated since, and many believe that Kennedy was intoxicated at the time of the incident. Ths photo was taken July 1979. (UPI Photo/Files)

Announcer: Senator Ted Kennedy may have seen his chances for becoming President deflated because of a bizarre and almost unbelievable car accident in which he was involved. That story next on 1969 In Review.

Senator Ted Kennedy’s car accident, which took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, was a confusing tale. It all started as a party; a party for former aides to the Senator’s late brother Robert. It was shortly after 11 o’clock that night when --

Ted Kennedy: “When I left the party around 11:15 pm, I was accompanied by one of these girls, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne. Little over one mile away, the car that I was driving, on an unlit road, went off a narrow bridge, which had no guardrails and was built on the left angle to the road. The car overturned in a deep pond, and immediately filled with water. I remember thinking as the cold water rushed in around my head that I was 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.

"My conduct in conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember then, make no sense to me at all. I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately.”

Announcer: The United Press International, 1969 In Review, will continue right after this message.

For Ted Kennedy, July, 1969 was a time for reflection; what affect did the accident have on his role as a representative of the people of Massachusetts. He decided to ask them personally on a nationally televised program.

Ted Kennedy: “If at any time, the citizens of Massachusetts should lack confidence in their Senator’s character or his ability, with or without justification, he could not in my opinion adequately perform his duties, and should not continue in office.

"The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made my life worthwhile. So I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me. In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion. In making it I seek your prayers. For this is a decision that I will have finally to make on my own.”

Announcer: The answer they gave was clear, stay in office, and he did. But the unanswered questions about the accident prompted the County District Attorney to call for an inquest which may or may not provide the answers.

Actually, the year started out rather well for the young Senator. He won the majority whip post in the Senate by defeating Senator Russell Long. His positions on the ABM, Vietnam, and the draft followed moderate liberal lines and were accepted by many. His name came up whenever someone talked about a Democratic Presidential candidate for 1972. But for him, 1969 may have changed all that.

The memory of Bobby Kennedy was regenerated when the trial of his accused assassin came to an end. The verdict, guilty. The sentence, death in the California gas chamber.

Another assassin shocked the country by pleading guilty to the murder of Martin Luther King. For his penalty, James Earl Ray received 99 years in prison. His guilty plea and conviction aroused a public who thought he may have been part of a conspiracy. However the Justice Department insisted no evidence of a conspiracy existed.