What happened at Chappaquiddick and what does it have to do with Ted Kennedy?

The middle of July in 1969 was an exciting time in the United States.

After the traumatic and transformative year of 1968 with major turns in the Vietnam war and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, people around the world were watching as three American astronauts were on their way to the moon in Apollo 11.

Explore>> Read more trending news

The spaceship was carrying the first man from Earth who would step on the lunar surface.

As the 1960s were coming to an end, the weekend of July 18 would see astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins speed closer to the moon for a scheduled landing on July 20, fulfilling the promise made by Kennedy’s brother, John F. Kennedy, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

On that Friday night, a group of wome n – the “Boiler Room Girls” – who had worked on RFK’s presidential campaign were partying at a house on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The evening cookoutparty was being hosted by the youngest Kennedy brother, Sen.  Edward (Ted) Kennedy and his cousin Joe Gargan.

<<'Chappaquiddick' film highlights one of Kennedy family's darkest chapters

Kennedy made his goodbyes and left the party around 11 a.m. One of the Boiler Room Girls, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, accompanied Kennedy in the car headed back to catch a ferry that would take them the 150 yards to Edgartown where they each had their own hotel room.

By morning, Kopechne would be dead and Kennedy’s aspirations to be president would be dealt an unrecoverable blow.

A movie about the incident called "Chappaquiddick" is set to open in theaters on Friday. According to the trailer, it will take a look at the events of the evening, the life of Kopechne and the legacy of Kennedy in the aftermath of the fatal car accident.

e

Here’s what we know happened that night:

The group

Kennedy and Gargan were hosting a cookout/party for the "Boiler Room Girls" a group of young women who worked on RFK’s 1968 presidential campaign. The group’s name came from the area – a windowless room – where the women worked in Kennedy’s Washington D.C. offices.

It was the first get-together for the group and Kennedy after RFK’s assassination 13 months earlier. They came together on Chappaquiddick to watch a regatta.

The members of the Boiler Room Girls were:

Kopechne

Mary Ellen Lyons – now an attorney

Nance Lyons – Mary’s sister, also now an attorney

Esther Newberg – now a literary agent

Susan Tannenbaum – now a retired Washington lobbyist

Rosemary Keough – now an attorney

The senator

Edward Kennedy was the youngest child of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy. He graduated from Harvard and the University of Virginia. His godfather was his brother, John.

He won the Senate seat his brother John held before he resigned it to become president.

Ted Kennedy nearly died in a plane crash on June 19, 1964, seven months after JFK was assassinated in Dallas. He, Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh and Bayh’s wife Marvella survived the crash. Legislative aide Edward Moss and the plane’s pilot, Edwin Zimny died of their injuries.

At the time the accident at Chappaquiddick that took Kopechne’s life happened, Kennedy was the Democratic majority whip in the Senate.

He was married twice and had three children. Two of his siblings died in plane crashes and two died after being shot in the head.

At the time of his death, Kennedy’s net worth was between $43 million and $162 million.

Mary Jo Kopechne

Mary Jo Kopechne was the only child of Joseph and Gwen Kopechne. She grew up in New Jersey and was 28 at the time of her death.

She had worked on JFK’s 1960 campaign, and, after getting a degree in business, she got a job in RFK’s Senate office. She typed RFK’s speech announcing his run for the presidency, and worked to line up delegates to the Democratic National Convention for her boss. After Kennedy’s assassination, she rode on the train that carried his body back to Washington.

She came to Chappaquiddick Island for a reunion of the women who worked on RFK's campaign. According to Leo Damore's book, "Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up," Gwen Kopechne warned her daughter before she left for the trip to "be careful of the water."

The wreck

Kennedy and Kopechne left the party around 11 p.m. and headed out on Chappaquiddick Road, the only paved road on the island. Kennedy then took a sharp turn onto Dike Road, an unpaved road, and traveled a short distance. He missed a ramp up to the bridge over Poucha Pond and the Oldsmobile Delmont 88 went off the edge of the wooden bridge and overturned in the pond.

According to Kennedy, he managed to get out of the vehicle, though he could not remember how, and to the surface of the pond. He said he repeatedly dove back down to the car in an effort to free Kopechne from the car where she was trapped, but still alive.

After “several” attempts, Kennedy said he was too exhausted to try again and made it to shore. He says he doesn’t know who long he laid on the bank before he got up and made his way back to the house where the party was being held.

He told Gargan what had happened and the two men along with Paul Markham went back to the bridge and tried to get Kopechne out of the car. They could not.

The men then went to the ferry slip that takes people from Chappaquiddick to Edgartown. Gargan would later say he believed Kennedy was going to report the accident in Edgartown. The ferry was not there, so Kennedy dove into the water at the slip and swam the 150 yards back to Edgartown.

He returned to his hotel room at the Shiretown Inn and changed clothes, he would later say.

Around 2:25 a.m., he stepped out of his room and saw innkeeper Russell Peachey and told him he had been awakened by a noise, according to testimony at an inquest. He then returned to his room.

At 9:45 a.m., roughly 10 hours after driving off Dike Road bridge, Kennedy reported the accident to Edgartown police. He said, via a statement dictated to Markham, that he had been the driver of the car and that he believed Kopechne was still in the vehicle.

“On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m. in Chappaquiddick, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dike Road, instead of bearing hard left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately one-half mile on Dike Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge. There was one passenger with me, one Miss MaryKopechne, a former secretary of my brother Sen. Robert Kennedy. The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and then 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. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the backseat. I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period and then going back to my hotel room. When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.”

The aftermath

Kennedy pleaded guilty on July 25 to leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily injury. He was sentenced to 60 days of incarceration, but the sentence was suspended. The judge referred to Kennedy’s “unblemished record” in making the ruling. Kennedy also had his driver’s license suspended for one year.

He made a televised statement that evening, saying his delay in reporting the wreck was “indefensible.” He also denied any romantic involvement with Kopechne. He asked the voters of Massachusetts to let him know if they wanted him to resign.

They did not.

The inquest

The inquest into the accident was held on Jan. 5, 1970. Twenty-six witnesses in addition to Kennedy testified. In April, a grand jury was convened. The grand jury returned no indictments against Kennedy for any of his actions on that night.

The legacy 

While Kennedy would serve no time for the wreck that took Kopechne's life, the specter of Chappaquiddick would haunt him until his death in 2009.

Kennedy had been moving toward a run for president, but after the accident announced he would not run in 1972. He declined to run four years later in 1976.

In 1980, he challenged sitting Democratic President Jimmy Carter, but could not secure the votes needed at the Democratic National Convention to win the party’s nomination.

In the years after the accident, Kennedy would, however, win every one of the Senate races he was in and earn the moniker of the “Lion of the Senate.”

About the Author