By Justyna Tomtas
For Inland 360
When Todd Davis was awoken in the early morning hours of July 17, 1999, he knew the rescue operation he was about to depart on was different from the rest.
Davis, who was born in Grangeville and grew up in Kamiah, had completed countless missions as a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard from the Cape Cod, Mass., base he was stationed at.
Typically, he would board an already running helicopter in preparation to rescue or recover the bodies of people at sea. But, that morning Davis was instead led into the base’s operation center, a small room that was surprisingly packed with high ranking officials.
Davis was told he’d be responding to a high profile plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean, although he wasn’t provided with details on the plane’s occupants.
His crew took to the air at about 6 a.m. Once daybreak came, Davis scanned the sky.
“I looked above us and there were helicopters everywhere. They were all news helicopters,” Davis recalled. “I started flipping channels and that’s how we found out we were searching for John F. Kennedy, Jr. As soon as we heard that it became a lot more intense.”
The 38-year-old Kennedy had departed from the New Jersey Essex County Airport at about 8:38 p.m. the night before. The plane was headed to his cousin’s wedding at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts with his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette onboard.
At about 9:41 p.m. on July 16, 1999, the plane Kennedy was flying crashed nearly nose first into the water about 7.5 miles west of his destination.
Davis was the first rescue swimmer from the Coast Guard to respond to the suspected scene of the crash, which claimed the lives of Kennedy and the other passengers.
His efforts to locate Kennedy are the focus of a mini-documentary titled “Rescuer” created by Matteo and Elisabetta Zengaro, a sibling duo. It will be released on Amazon Prime sometime in October.
During Davis’ six hour search for the single-engine plane, he spotted an oil slick in the water. But his search efforts for the son of former President John F. Kennedy proved fruitless.
“I spent the wee hours of the morning looking for his body or his plane, only to come up with nothing,” Davis said.
Davis was hopeful that the three would be found alive. But that feeling quickly dissipated once news organizations began reporting that the search had changed from a rescue mission, to one of recovering the bodies.
“I really thought there was a chance they’d still be alive,” Davis said. “During my time with the Coast Guard I saw the worst of things, but I also saw miracles.”
Once the news of the recovery mission spread, Davis said the tone of Cape Cod, and the nation, switched dramatically.
“The Kennedys were a big part of politics and culture,” he recalled. “It’s just a constant tragedy for this family. … There were tributes and memorials. Everyone was in a state of shock.”
The bodies of Kennedy and the other passengers were recovered from the inside of the plane on July 20 about 120 feet below the surface of the water. An autopsy confirmed all three had died on impact.
The news of Kennedy’s death flipped a switch in Davis.
“I think that was one of those driving forces, a small catalyst, that I didn’t want to do (the job) anymore, because it was constant tragedy,” Davis said. “If anything, it really just became a reality check. It was a somber reminder that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are or what you do. Life can end in a matter of seconds, because if J.F.K. can die, anyone can die.”
The “dark period” Davis experienced led him to reevaluate his future.
He remained with the Coast Guard for a few more years, serving over six years in all. Davis then opened a canoe and kayak business in Cape Cod, which he later sold in 2005. He moved back to Idaho to complete his higher education journey, which had been cut short when he enrolled in the Coast Guard.
He received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Idaho and went on to teach at Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene. Davis worked in Moscow for a year after he received his master’s degree in parks and recreation administration, later also completing his doctoral degree.
In 2008, he began working at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., where he teaches sports management and directs an outdoors recreational program.
For now, Davis, who is 46, will remain in Mississippi, but he plans to return to the Gem State eventually.
“Idaho will always be our home,” Davis said.