By Siobhan Morrissey/Grand Bahama island Sharon Cotliar/New York City Mary Green/New York City Michelle Tan/New York City Eunice Oh/Los Angeles Peter Mikelbank/Paris Liz McNeil Michelle Tauber/Ocala and Steve Helling/Ocala
Updated January 19, 2009 12:00 PM

The phone rang on Jan. 2 with the worst news imaginable: Kelly Preston was calling to say that Jett, her 16-year-old son with husband John Travolta, had died. “She said, ‘There’s been an accident,’ and told me Jett was gone,” recalls a family friend. “She kept it together as we talked, but her voice started to crack right before she hung up. I asked her if there was anything I could do, and she said, ‘Just pray.'” Just hours earlier, John himself had desperately tried to revive Jett using CPR after the teen was discovered unconscious in a bathroom of the family’s villa at the Old Bahama Bay resort near Nassau. “He was doing mouth-to-mouth to resuscitate,” says Travolta attorney Michael McDermott. “You are fighting against fate and doing everything in your power.”

Crushed by the sudden loss of, in their own words, “the most wonderful son two parents could ever ask for,” John, 54, and Kelly, 46, have retreated to a supportive inner sanctum of friends and family as they struggle to cope with their grief while also tending to funeral plans. The tragedy unfolded at around 10 a.m. at Old Bahama Bay, where Jett had been vacationing with his parents, sister Ella Bleu, 8, and some 50 friends flown in by Travolta for a New Year’s celebration. After attempts by Travolta and paramedics to revive him failed, Jett was taken to Freeport’s Rand Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Although initial police reports indicated Jett had hit his head on a bathtub, a Jan. 5 autopsy found only that the teen had died of a “seizure disorder,” says a source close to the family. His parents flew with Jett’s cremated remains back to their estate near rural Ocala, Fla., with plans for a memorial service on Jan. 8. “It is beyond shock—it is devastating,” says friend and fellow family attorney Mike Ossi. “To bury your son is the worst thing you can ever do. It is beyond words.”

For John and Kelly, the death of their only son—who loved airplanes like his dad and adored his parents and sister—shatters a profound and deeply personal bond that amazed everyone who witnessed it. “Jett looked at John as if he was the sun and the moon,” says McDermott. “And John reciprocated.” Says longtime Travolta friend Sherry Lansing: “John has the biggest heart in the whole world. Everything is about children and family. I really can’t imagine anything worse than this happening.”

Amid their sorrow, the couple are also dealing with long-standing questions surrounding Jett’s health and scrutiny of his medical treatment. Protective of Jett’s privacy, the family never discussed his developmental delays or physical challenges. Ossi says Jett suffered from “frequent, severe” seizures, for which he had been treated with the antiseizure medication Depakote, but that he had been taken off the drug when it lost effectiveness. Sources close to the Travolta family say Jett received top-notch medical care and that any suggestion to the contrary—including the notion that the couple’s Scientology beliefs would prevent them from pursuing conventional medical treatment for Jett—is false. Notes Ossi: “Every conversation with John, we’d discuss Jett. It was, ‘Jett had a great day and no seizures.’ John was always worried. He always was sure to have the right nurses and nannies to help—and he did. And that’s why he’s so shocked.”

Though Jett’s behavior led some observers to believe he suffered from autism, his parents never addressed such speculation publicly. They did, however, speak out about their son’s struggle with Kawasaki disease—a condition typically associated with inflammation of the arteries—at age 2 (see box page 57). But even close friends were left to draw their own conclusions about the boy who shared his father’s famous ocean-blue eyes but rarely made eye contact with outsiders; the young man who often smiled but was never heard speaking; the teen who loved the water, golf cart rides and airplanes but who needed round-the-clock supervision wherever he went. “John and Kelly never discussed his physical condition with me,” says their friend actress Anne Archer. “I observed that he was significantly mentally handicapped … but it was very apparent with the two of them that they treated him as if he was a completely normal child. John always communicated to him as if Jett could completely understand him. He was infinitely patient. You wouldn’t even have to call it patience because it was beyond that. It was a kind of sweet exchange, where he was just happy with anything that Jett offered. Anything.”

By all accounts, that unwavering parental devotion to Jett and Ella, who were both homeschooled, was a cornerstone of the family’s life together. Kelly, who began acting in her teens before appearing in films like Jerry Maguire and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, routinely scheduled her film and TV work around her kids’ schedules. “What people don’t know is that her children are her entire world,” says a family friend. “If she’s away from them, it kills her.” A hands-on mom, she took special care to ensure that Jett always felt included and comfortable in every situation. A crew member on the set of her 1998 film Holy Man recalls that during a Halloween party for the cast and crew’s children, Kelly provided everyone with special sugar-free, wheat-free candy to give a then 5-year-old Jett, who never spoke or interacted with the other kids. “She really went out of her way to make things okay for him,” says the source.

Likewise, John’s bond with Jett was a particular source of joy to both of them. “I can’t imagine what life would be like without Jett,” John told PEOPLE in 1994. “After he was born and cleaned up, I held him for hours while Kelly slept.” As the years passed, John—a commercial-grade pilot—reveled in sharing his love of flying with his son, even piloting the entire family on a round-the-world trip in 2002. Recalls Mike Nichols, who directed John in 1998’s Primary Colors: “[Jett] was so much included in everything. He was just his son. You didn’t take anything apart and say, ‘This one is this way, this one is that way.’ He was a Travolta.”

John and Jett “were always riding in the golf cart together and going up in the ultralight plane and just being together,” says Ossi. “Jett liked the water and he swam like a fish—he swam almost daily. He loved the wind. That’s why [John] bought a house in Florida—to be near an airstrip and the water.”

At their fly-in Ocala estate, “it’s not a question of if they will share dinner, they just always do,” says the family friend. “And if you’ve ever sat with them at dinner, you know there’s a lot of happy talk, teasing—good-natured, of course. They love to laugh.” Jett enjoyed a special closeness with his doting little sister. “When Ella would go shopping she would always say, ‘Let’s get this for Jett—he loves kites,'” recalls Ossi. “She would get him food and take care of him.”

At the local Denny’s, where they were frequent customers, “John was particularly good with [Jett],” says a waitress. “One time, Jett spilled his water and it went everywhere. John was really patient, telling Jett that it wasn’t his fault. It was very nice to see how tender he was with him.” In November the family went shopping for new shoes for Jett at the local mall. “John was the one who put the shoes on his feet and would ask him, ‘How do these feel, buddy?'” recalls an employee. “Jett was smiling really big.”

Those high spirits would continue throughout the fall and early winter, with John, Kelly and the kids all traveling to Paris while John shot the upcoming action thriller From Paris with Love. Following their time in Paris the family upheld their annual Christmas tradition of hosting a huge gathering of friends and relatives at their stone mansion in Maine, an extravagant bash that always includes plenty of music, dancing and food. “I would always joke with him about the 30 to 40 people who were a part of every holiday,” says pal Diane Sawyer, who has known Travolta for nearly two decades. “It is so much part of his life to include people in his blessings.” Sawyer’s husband, Nichols, recalls seeing Jett and Ella dance together at one party, while noting that John’s affection for his wife of 18 years was “infectious.” On the Primary Colors set, “John would say to us, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Kelly Preston!’ They have so much fun together.”

Looking to kick off the new year in style, the couple flew to Old Bahama Bay. Arriving on Dec. 28, the group spent five days swimming, boating and windsurfing. Attended by two full-time caretakers who alternated shifts, Jett “was never left alone,” says McDermott. “Everything that could be done to protect this child was done.”

Now his grieving parents are struggling to make sense of losing the son they loved so fiercely. “Ella is trying to keep her mom and dad up,” says Ossi. “She is giving them lots of hugs and kisses and being there for them as a friend and as a daughter.” Sadly, their “unit of four,” as Ossi calls them, has now been forever broken, even as Jett’s memory lives on for his family and friends. “John and Kelly’s children saw their parents’ eyes light up every time they walked into a room—that’s what it means to be the center of someone’s universe,” says Sawyer. “If anyone can find purpose and redeeming hope in this impossible sadness, they can and will.”